GWP Senior Knowledge Management Officer Dr. Danka Thalmeinerova shares impressions from the European River Restoration Conference in Vienna (ERRC 2014, 28-30 October), which she is attending.
We all know that the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) made a paradigm shift in thinking about European rivers as “natural capital”. I like this term used by Beate Werner from the European Environmental Agency. This term is self-explanatory, having the same meaning to economists and environmentalists as well as policy makers.
It was emphasized at the plenary opening session of ERRC 2014 that it took Europe about 60-80 years to destroy its aquatic environment thanks to huge economic development, ranging from river pollution, urbanisation, navigation channels, irrigation schemes, and numerous cuts off and regulations of natural streams. A thorough mapping of all the changes in hydro-morphology was made during the first River Basin Management Planning process in all member states of the EU. Wording in the EU WFD stipulates that all the water bodies that are considered to be unsustainable are called heavily modified water bodies. It was estimated that we would need to spend the next 200 years to fix past problems.
The ERRC 2014 is an occasion that attempts to demonstrate that restoration projects are possible, not only as a “nice-to-do activity” of enthusiastic ecological activists, but as an integral part of river planning and management. About 100 presentations were made at the event showing approaches that support river restoration. The most attractive of these qualified for the European River Prize. This prize is devoted to champions of best practice in river basin management. The three 2014 finalists are:
- DanubeParks is a network of nature protection areas along the Danube. When looking at the Danube from a bird’s eye perspective, the network of parks is like string of pearls, running from Austria’s mountains to the floodplain of Romania towards the Black Sea. More than 10 years of strengthening the management of natural parks along the Danube comprised more than 150 activities, ranging from river restoration, nature conservation, and enhancement of eco-tourism. As a result, several rare species that were going extinct are coming back because of better management of the protected parks. This finalist made a point that river is a place for birds, fish, as well as for people and the economy.
- The Mur River restoration project in Austria is an example of cooperation between local municipalities, water engineers, urban planners and eco-activists. Historically, the Mur River was one of the dirtiest in Europe. Although the early wave of restoration included heavy investments in wastewater treatment plans, these were recently combined with increasing of public awareness. The restoration project aimed to bring water back to people and bring people close to the river. Today, the Mur is a popular place to organise festivals, a meeting point for young people, walking space for elderly people, and a good stamp of approval for elected politicians!
- The Regional Association of Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development (BROZ) is a non-governmental organization that has been active for more than 15 years in river restoration activities in Slovakia and neighboring countries of the Danube (Austria and Hungary). Several restoration projects initiated by this NGO were presented, ranging from small urban streams improvements to important protected zones requiring significant investment. The message of the finalist was clear: practical activities involving stakeholders and the public seem to be the best way to increase trust and transparency in the participation process. Face-to-face discussions are important, although the reports to bureaucratic machinery need to be made seriously. Trust is also increased by providing tangible evidence of how these discussions have influenced the development of the plan.
At the time of writing this, the winner has not yet been announced, but I am convinced that all these finalists and all the others who presented their projects are already winners for European waters.
Related link: Dr. Thalmeinerova also wrote a blog post about ERRC 2013, A Salute to the ERRC