Seeking Public Works Projects for the 21st Century
The New Management of Rivers and Wetlands in Central Europe
By Alexander Zinke, Vienna
The history of human impact on rivers and wetlands in Central Europe is basically similar to that of many other highly developed countries, including Japan. However, in Europe some ten years ago, this history of resource management has entered into a new phase which could be titled the "Era of River and Wetland Restoration", with several thousand projects going on or already completed. My presentation will illustrate the circumstances for revising the water policy and the practical implications for riverine landscapes in Central Europe.
Since the late 19th century, Central European rivers were repeatedly subject of intensive river regulation activities which aimed at much improving the human uses like flood protection, agriculture, navigation, settlements and, after World War I, also power production and recreation. Rivers are examples for the uncritical exploitation of natural resources where over many decades engineering works and the overall economic "progress" were never questioned.
Today, most European rivers are heavily altered due both to pollution and to river engineering works. In richer countries like Germany, France or Netherlands the pollution problem peaked in the early 1970s but is today largely under control, while in southern and eastern Europe, still about 25% of rivers are heavily polluted by insufficiently or non-treated waste waters. However, the authorities often invested first into the local technical control of river sections while largely ignoring the complex ecological and hydro-morphological interactions between river, floodplain and tributaries within a catchment. Maximum exploitation suppressed critical questions and investigations. A planning engineer is quoted with a then characteristic statement: "We don't discuss, we construct!".
The impacts are multiple and often even critical:
- loss of most natural wetland biotopes and their biodiversity;
- worsened quality of ground- and surface waters affecting the supply of drinking water and the
- worsened flood protection.
Examples for the overexploitation over the last decades:
- In Denmark, over 90% of the river network has been altered;
- in Austria, only 21% of rivers are still somehow intact; 51% are impacted by hydropower;
- in the entire Danube basin less than 19% of the former floodplains (7,845 km? out of once 41,605 km?) are left.
On the German Rhine river between World War II and the 1970s, the flood risk has dramatically increased due to the manifold losses of upstream retention capacities within the entire catchment area (e.g. the regulation of most small tributaries results in much faster discharge of waters into the lowlands where the flood waves quickly build up). Figure 1 shows the historical development of the Upper Rhine:
At left the intact
river in 1800, with two morphological river types (braided and meander
zones), in the map centre the regulated river of the late 19th century
and, at right, the highly developed section in the south with three technological
phases: full diversion onto French territory (lateral canal), partial
diversion in form of four loops (bypasses) with hydropower plants, and
the "full development" in the 1970s impounding the entire bed
at two large barrages. As a result, between 1955 and 1977, 60% of the
adjacent floodplain as natural flood retention area got lost, and a flood
wave running down this 200 km "tube" (Basel-Karlsruhe) speeded
up from 65 hours in 1955 to only 30 hours where it suddenly met with other
waves from tributaries.
It was found in 1978 that this dramatically increased the flood hazard of large cities and industry complexes in the north (= downstream) (Figure 2) because much less water can be retained in upstream catchment sections: In the 1980s and 1990s, a series of "centennial floods" on the Rhine was registered - fortunately yet not causing the worst damages but ringing the alarm bells of local authorities to undertake urgent changes.
It should be emphasised that the effects are reaching even up to the Netherlands. German authorities calculated that a major flood on the Upper Rhine river would result in damages of DM 12.4 billion and could affect 700,000 people in 95 communities. As a way out, authorities found that an investment of only DM 1 billion (= 8%) into alternative ecological flood protection would much reduce these threats.
As a consequence, the province of Baden-Wuerttemberg initiated in 1988 a framework concept which integrates flood protection with floodplain restoration ("Integrated Rhine Programme"), and decided in January 1996 its implementation with expected costs of over 400 million Euro. In order to achieve maximum flood retention (need for another 170 million m³) combined with ecological restoration, 14 areas were identified and prepared for ecological flood protection in both the regulated and the semi-natural sections (Figure 3).
Another 13 areas are presently
under detail evaluation in this province and more areas were identified in the
neighbouring German provinces.
Technically, the agreed projects aim at the re-connection of floodplains in the impounded Rhine section with the dynamic inundation regime, i.e. the former floodplains will be inundated not only during extreme floods every few years but also at smaller flood events at least once a year in order to secure the re-establishment of the typical habitat and biodiversity (Figure 4):
Similar ecology-oriented flood protection is planned also on the opposite river bank: In the German province of Rhineland-Palatinate, "Action Blue" since 1994 initiated more than 200 restoration projects, with over 90 of them already being completed. In addition, over 170 ecology-oriented water body management and development plans were elaborated which prescribe restoration and improvement actions for 3,300 km of water bodies, and contracting 380 voluntary "creek patrons" (i.e. groups of local people who monitor and take care of creek or river stretches) (Figure 5: examples for regulated and for restored creeks within urban areas,
Figure 6: example of restoration phases:
Thus, the WFD strongly indicates the changed target values for resource management in Europe, compared to the former goal of resource exploitation.
It has to be emphasised that the European Commission is very carefully observing the application of its legal standards both among EU member states and outside. Especially over the last year, repeated pressure is being exerted to those member states who try to delay or ignore theses standards, the EC is regularly taking such governments to the European Court of Justice. Sometimes, substantial fines have to be paid. A "shocking" precedence was the decision of the European Court of Justice from 5 July 2000, imposing daily fines on Greece for failing to implement two waste management directives. The decision forces Athens to pay Euros 20,000 every day until it complies with the laws.
Another recent example of such serious political pressure can be reported from Poland, one of the most prominent EU applicant countries. Poland risks delaying its membership of the European Union if it goes ahead with two controversial river engineering projects on the Vistula river and the Odra river (for three new dams and major river engineering works). There is repeated critique by the European Commission that Poland is not taking seriously its obligations to conform with EU environmental law and that it is not making enough progress in adopting EU environmental law.
Fact is that most EU countries have already moved away from big dam projects towards more cost-effective and eco-efficient solutions.
Different to Germany or Netherlands, Austria has the image of hosting intact landscapes with high tourist value. In deed, over the last decades Austria was very successful in improving the water quality but as a mountain country the exploitation of water forces was always promoted. Today, 79% (!) of its rivers are damaged by hydro-engineering.
However, over the last 15 years a change in the values of the society resulted in systematic revisions of the water law. The new legislation demands the preservation of the river's ecological functioning capacity (i.e. it aims at ecologically intact waters which exist with all their biotic character and abiotic processes without human intervention). New river restoration measures want to allow and support lateral movements and to maintain or restore its longitudinal continuum beyond formerly fixed narrow banks and weirs. Respective funds are available from the existing government budget: Today, 1 per thousand of the GDP are invested into flood protection and water engineering and 0.1 per thousand into the ecological improvement of rivers.
In spring 1998, Austria started its "Living Rivers Initiative" as an innovative alliance of the government with an NGO, namely the Ministry for Agriculture & Forestry, the Ministry for Environment and WWF Austria (Figure 9).
The foreword in the booklet
"The Future of Austrian Rivers" (BMLF, BMUJF & WWF-A 1999)
by the 2 federal ministers for agriculture & forestry and for environment,
as well as by the director of WWF Austria, states:
Generations to Come"
For decades, Austria's rivers have been manipulated and regulated with a focus on technology rather than ecology. The consequence: monotonous rivers and streams, unable to perform their vitally important natural functions.
Today's challenge is to combine river restoration with flood protection. Clean water in well-structured, living rivers has to be our chief goal. The foundation for the revitalisation of Austria's rivers has been laid. (...) Restoration is the challenge for future generations.
The booklet gives six arguments why revitalisation of rivers is needed:
Then, the booklet indicates
six principles how to do river restoration:
of Its Own"
|(all quoted from: "The
Future of Austrian Rivers" 1999)
Finally, it is stressed
that "modern water management combines ecology and flood protection".
This is reflected in
|Four objectives for river management intended to improve the ecological situation of rivers:|
An Austrian awareness campaign
was launched with an investment of 0.2 million Euro, while the total investment
into river restoration is expected at 80 million Euro. Alone in 1998, 17 projects
were started and 5 million Euro invested, by the end of 1999, already 11 projects
were completed. These efforts should be compared with the small size of Austria
(84,000 km? and 8 million inhabitants).
One of the model restoration projects is located at the Austrian Danube just a few kilometres downstream from Vienna where on a 50 km long, still intact river stretch a long-demanded "Danube floodplains national park" was established. It is important to know that in 1984 here the construction of a major hydropower plant was about to start. However, the clear-cutting of the riverine forests for dam construction was prevented by the opposition of thousands of people who occupied the site and forced the government to first halt the construction and later give up the plans.
In 1989, WWF - always demanding to turn the area into a floodplain national park - was suddenly able to purchase a 420 ha core area of the floodplains (called "Regelsbrunner Au") which was then used to demonstrate national park-like management. This turning point was possible through an immense financial support of the Austrian people, then donating a lot of money for this unique action.
Many famous artists and celebrities promoted the campaign and ten thousands of Austrians bought symbolic shares of the nature area to finance the purchase of the wetland. Together with the occupation of the dam construction site in 1984, this was the key action to push the national park idea. After another WWF lobbying campaign "Yes to the Floodplain" in 1995, the national park was established by the government in October 1996.
In the WWF area 30 km downstream from Vienna, ecological monitoring showed both a high ecosystem quality but also a continued degradation of the biotopes and water bodies over the last 120 years, caused by the Danube regulation for navigation. This largely cut off the inter-connection between the main bed and the floodplain (side-arms), thus altering the geomorphologic balance (the main bed eroded, the floodplain filled up with sediments) and the ecological conditions (drying up of the floodplain biotopes, lack of wet and pioneer areas).
The needed restoration action was planned by environmentalists together with scientific and river management institutions, and implemented in 1996-98. This included the lowering and opening of Danube embankments together with the opening of lateral weirs within the floodplain side-arm system (at each four sites). This allowed to increase (restore) the discharge of Danube water through the floodplain from 20 to over 200 days per year (Figure 10 and photo)
|Re-opening of Danube embankments (right=river, center=bank lowered by 1.5 m for inflow on 152 days/year; not visible: cassette allowing inflow on 222 d/y).||View (at low water) from the bank into the re-connected Danube side-arm: erosion of silted-up deposits creates new valuable habitats and flood retention space.|
, from now on fully connected
to the river discharge variations. The respective monitoring programme by engineers
and ecologists showed impressive improvements in form of much increased hydrological
and morphological dynamics (flushing out of silted sediments, creation of gravel
bars and steep banks), and the return of many typical and specialised but nearly
extinct species (birds, fishes, molluscs, dragonflies etc.), most of which depend
on pioneer habitats. It is again the river who is shaping this land, and the
changes of the first years encourage to adopt this principle also in other park
parts and elsewhere in Austria. Today, this area is recognised as one of the
best river restoration sites in Europe.
Also, the national park became a new economic factor for local communities. Some of them first opposed to the conservation and restoration plans but today agree and profit from the changes.
There are many more river
and wetland restoration projects under implementation throughout the
Danube basin down to the delta where the largest restoration projects can
The building of hydro-dams and navigation canals has come to an end in most European countries, mainly because it was found as being non-economic and anachronistic to modern principles of natural resources management. Ecological river management is not a test case anymore in Europe but is demanded by the public, prescribed by legal norms and practised in many countries for over ten years. The successful projects are based on the principle of "Let the river do the work": Rivers get more space (also to gain flood retention and self-purification capacities), the site development is not fully controlled or permanently adjusted. The thousands of river and wetland restoration projects reflect the international consensus that this is needed and feasible in many places, and that it already proved to be useful and economically efficient.
Compared with the large number of degraded rivers and wetlands, these activities may still have model character but they are intended as long-term programme because most government authorities do not see other (e.g. technical) alternatives in terms of legal needs, economic viability and public acceptance.
These programmes prove to be real win-win activities: First, they improve the natural environment, second both local and downstream citizens can see and benefit from their impact, and third, while being small in investment costs and public budget needs, such projects still secure many qualified jobs for river engineers, landscape planners and ecologists.