International Symposium 17 December 2000, Tokio, Japan
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
recreational value;
- 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):

  • A so-called "ecological flooding" is successfully tested since 1989 in totally embanked flood-retention polders which exist in the strongly regulated southern Rhine section. These disconnected floodplains lack natural connections with the Rhine and its discharge fluctuations but this can now be imitated by coupling them with the Rhine water level. Originally, they were to be flooded only at extreme events (ca. once in 10 years), but that method proved to cause significant ecological damage and was therefore changed.
  • In the non-impounded, still near-natural northern river section, an optimum solution is presently under way by setting back the dike line in riverine forested and agricultural land to increase the openly inundable wetland area. This allows natural restoration of the floodplain but also a reduction of intensive agriculture (e.g. change from crop production to meadow management) which is desired by the new EU agricultural policy.

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:

Photo no. 89: Status before restoration: The regulated creek served to drain
meadows and fields.
Photo no. 90: A similar creek section right after restoration action: The eroded
and straightened bed is replaced by a shallow hollow in which the creek is naturally curving and shaping its bed.
Photo no. 91: A similar creek section ten years later. The first bare embankments
are now covered with a typical pioneer vegetation.
Photo no. 92: This is how the creek section should have developed after three to
five decades.

The remarkable progress is shown in Figure 7 as success statistics for restoration projects (yellow triangle) and for water body management plans (green dots) from the Rhineland-Palatinate. Still, it will take the water authorities decades to get all the water bodies to a good structural quality.
Still, it will take the water authorities decades to get all the water bodies to a good structural quality.

Green curve: Total number of all management plans
Blue curve: Number of completed management plans
Orange curve: Total number of all restoration projects.
Yellow curve: Number of completed restoration projects.

Many more restoration activities could be reported from other provinces of Germany. Only one example: In the largest province of Bavaria, some 500 restoration projects on rivers, floodplains and creeks were resp. are being performed. Alone between 1989 and 1993, Bavaria invested 70 mio. Euro for the purchase of land along river banks - a pre-requisite for landscape managers for giving the river space and time to restore its bed, embankments and floodplain.

Another example is the Danube as the most important European river, with a length of 2,780 km (second-longest after the Volga) and its tributary network (total basin dams has 817,000 km²), facing partly different problems: It is first subject to heavy pollution loads from often non-treated sewage waters of hundreds of cities, industries and agriculture but, in addition, the structure of many rivers in its catchment is critically altered by thousands of small and large dams. Real cataracts of dams were built especially in the German-Austrian and the Romanian mountain sections. On the first 1,000 km of the Danube between its source and Bratislava, a chain of 58 dams exists (i.e. in average one in every 17 km), thus significantly reducing the local flood retention capacity.

Further downstream, in the big plains of the middle and lower Danube (Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania) extensive flood protection dike systems and drainage/irrigation networks were built since the 16th century, but especially in the 19th and 20th century. The changed water balance resulted in the continued loss of millions of ha of arable land and in catastrophic floods, as happened lately in 1999 and 2000 in Hungary and Romania. But already the governments are criticised for wasting money in the short-term improvement of dikes and for not speeding up the re-opening of natural flood retention areas (i.e. opening side-arms, setting back of dike lines).

Another specific European issue is transboundary river management. The Danube catchment is even shared by 13 countries, making it the world's most international river basin with multiple cross-boundary relations and impacts creating countless problems and needs of co-operation. Repeated flood and pollution incidents (at last in late winter 2000 in the Tisza basin) are often caused by a careless behaviour of upstream parties, resulting in serious economic losses and political tensions. However, the changes in the political systems within the European Union and in Eastern Europe over the last 15 years are today leading to political decisions for joint river management.

One of these model projects for this issue can be found at the lower Morava-Dyje rivers, a border area between Austria, Czechia and Slovakia, where the author had the privilege to guide interdisciplinary teams, composed of local and international experts for river engineering, forestry and wetland ecology (click here complete overview of project). One of our problems was to find a simple way for restoring ploughed wet meadows. One solution found was the harvesting of seeds from intact meadows and their sowing on the ploughed fields with conventional farm machines; another successful method was to transfer whole turf blocks with intact gene pools as restoration islands into the damaged sites.
A second problem of this area is increased erosion of the regulated river. The international expert team found that the cross-cutting of meanders led to faster flow rates in the main bed which resulted in bed erosion, dropping of water tables and drying up of the valuable wetland and its forests. Various computer and physical model tests showed in 1999 that the restoration of the straightened river bed of this formerly meandering river is only successful when fully re-directing the river flow through the meanders (Figure 8);

previous efforts to partly divert the river waters into three meanders in 1996-98 turned out as failure. This also referred to the problems of ageing and decreasing fish populations which could no longer enter the cut-off side-arms and oxbow-lakes: As a more open, more diverse riverine landscape offers much better conditions for fish (different species and life stages have different habitat needs), the de-regulation of the river bed and the re-opening of the water bodies was recognised to bring benefit both to river morphology, hydrology (flood water retention!) and biodiversity. Presently, border commissions between Austria and Slovakia negotiate on this - politically complicate - solution which would completely revert the river development measures from the 1960s.

A second political pressure required to make more economic cost-benefit analyses in river management which showed that a huge amount of money was wasted without actually bringing effective benefits for the society. On the other side, wetlands are more and more economically valued in their regular production of market goods such as timber, hay, fish and clean water: A WWF study (GREN 1995) has estimated the economic benefit produced every year in the Danube floodplains, summing up to 666 million Euros/year of free direct benefits from nature. 20 million people depend directly on the river and floodplain for their drinking water supply but suffer from ongoing river pollution and from structural degradation (e.g. reduced self-purification capacity, lack of fish habitats).

River Policy in Europe
These circumstances favoured scientific institutions and innovative water authorities interested to initiate alternative river management in form of pilot wetland restoration projects. Over the years, such single restoration activities were developed into comprehensive programmes, and they were supported by the public. These circumstances also fostered the revision of the legal framework and of the overall management along rivers.
Since the mid 1990s, this led to a boom in ecological river engineering. Today, some 3,000(!) river and wetland restoration projects can be found alone in the river basins of Rhine or Danube, with their priority and urgency depending on the local flood hazard or the tourist situation: Central European recreationists and tourists do not want to spend their time at regulated creeks, in monoculture river forests or at artificial river banks.
In the "Living Rivers" initiative, WWF presently runs over 65 such projects in 25 countries (from Scotland to Italy, Finland, Belgium, Russia and Bulgaria), all usually based on close co-operation with national governments and local communities.
Almost a kind of competition can be observed among province and national governments in Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria in their efforts to demonstrate ecological river and wetland management. Ministers, district governors and mayors like to present themselves as the guiding force which acts against environmental crisis by restoring and protecting wetlands, creeks and rivers: Such projects are considered to improve the quality of recreational life, to make investments more efficient (e.g. reduced maintenance costs, better flood protection) and to even create new jobs in ecological river engineering and wetland preservation (e.g. tourist guides, reserve managers, meadow harvesters).

This is also a trend outside of the European Union. Within the framework of the "Danube Basin Pollution Reduction Programme (PRP)", wetland restoration was acknowledged to be relatively cheap and to complement the cleaning effect of technical sewage treatment. The PRP therefore sets wetland protection and restoration as one of the priorities: Out of a big package of some 500 pollution reduction projects, the Danube basin states selected in June 1999 some 15% of their 72 first priority projects as wetlands, to be co-funded by international donors such as the World Bank / GEF or the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Another example: 20 large wetland restoration projects, especially along the lower Danube border between Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine, were endorsed in June 2000 between the respective governments and WWF International: the "Lower Danube Green Corridor". This 600,000 hectare chain of protected wetlands is an international milestone of transboundary co-operation and resource management and includes 200,000 ha of restoration projects.

All these activities are part of the new "Danube Basin Protection Convention", signed in 1994, which aims at more sustainable use of the water resources in this region. Similar river basin conventions were already agreed for the Rhine, the Elbe and the Oder river basins.

The Danube basin will also be one of the decisive regions for the implementation of the new "EU Water Framework Directive" which, after the endorsement by the European Parliament on 7 September 2000, will now become the most important legal standard for all EU member states but also for all EU-accession candidates like Czechia, Hungary or Romania. The directive demands that river basin management be based on geographical and hydrological areas, but not anymore on administrative and national boundaries. Thus, it will lead to much more transboundary co-operation.

The WFD has
  • legally binding objectives for water protection such as drinking, bathing, surface and groundwater.
  • it defines a relationship between emission limits and immission standards (water quality) through the so-called combined approach (including the elimination of priority hazardous substances),
  • it will increase public participation in planning and decision-making, and
  • introduce a system of full cost recovery pricing of water whereby EU member states will be required, by 2010, to charge consumers in all water sectors the true cost of water abstraction and treatment.
  • Further, the WFD aims at achieving a "good quality" status (= to maintain or restore their ecological and chemical character) for all water bodies by the year 2015; a respective monitoring will then check this every six years. This means that all over Europe, river restoration will become a priority action for governments at least over the next two decades.

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).

This action was successful in gaining nation-wide media and public interest for their river management and restoration programme. The three campaign goals for the years 1998 - 2000 were

  • to preserve the 1,300 km of nationally most valuable river sections (list of 74 "holy relics" in the "Book of Austrian Rivers"),
  • to improve ecologically degraded river stretches (see the second book "The Future of Austrian Rivers"), i.e.
  • to revitalise 500 km of rivers (removal of bank reinforcement, reintegration of side-
    arms, dismantling of weirs)
    -to restore 500 ha of inundation area (relocation of dykes)
    -to restore 500 ha of floodplain forest, and
    -to restore 500 ha of river banks and vegetation strips (buffer and filter),
  • to increase public awareness and understanding of river ecosystems.

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:

"For the 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:

"Rivers Need Space"

  1. Better flood protection: Modern water engineering is increasingly based on "passive flood protection". Rivers are given the space they need to cope with floods.
  2. Clean water: The more diversified a river is, the better it can filter organic contaminants and purify itself.
  3. More biodiversity: Floodplains are among the most diversified habitats in the world. However, the biodiversity of a floodplain forest can only develop if the landscape is designed by the river and not by man.
  4. Safe groundwater, clean drinking water: Intact floodplain forests are the most inexpensive water-supply systems available. They absorb the water which is then filtered and stored in their natural soils.
  5. Attractive recreation: Fishing, canoeing, swimming, cycling, hiking - a natural landscape not only provides important species habitat, it also offers recreation facilities of a rare and high quality.
  6. Lower Costs: Regulated rivers cost a lot of money. The continuous maintenance of the banks involves annual costs that can be saved if a river is given sufficient space to develop its natural dynamics.

Then, the booklet indicates six principles how to do river restoration:

"A Force of Its Own"
  1. Natural development: Rivers should be given more space again to allow natural development. Rivers and streams should be permitted to chose their own course, building banks freely, without being interfered with, restricted or inhibited.
  2. Allow erosion: Side erosion is essential. Steep banks, eroded by floods, provide irreplaceable habitats and breeding grounds for many species.
  3. Natural debris: Dead trees along river banks and accumulated drift wood are essential structural elements of a river. During restoration, such elements should be left where they are, whenever possible.
  4. Free-flowing: A river needs free-flowing stretches, void of artificial obstructions. Dams and barrage weirs block and prevent the natural development of rivers, and make upstream migration, vital for the reproduction of certain fish species, more difficult or impossible.
  5. More ecology in settlement areas: In densely populated areas, instead of building canals, ecological measures can be taken. Diversifying living environments and recreational areas can be created, with bank vegetation, bays, and a varied flow pattern.
  6. Let nature grow: Letting the dynamics of nature do their job is far better than any artificial vegetation scheme.
(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:
  • Existing floodplains should be preserved, and new ones created.
  • No further building permitted within floodplains.
  • Minimal interference along natural stretches of water and expansion of passive flood protection.
  • Existing flood protection (river regulations, dams, detention basins) must be improved from an ecological point of view, taking into account the original character of the river in question.

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 be observed.

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.