Rivers as Lifelines conference: key messages and points for action for the EU and Member States

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On 15th of October, Wetlands International Europe and The Nature Conservancy Europe hosted the conference and webinar ‘Rivers as Lifelines’, an EU Green Week and World Fish Migration Day 2020 event. Rivers as Lifelines aimed to bring a great degree of varied content, views, and interesting discussion on the topic of river restoration and protection, in Europe and beyond, with a broad representation of stakeholders and decision makers, including the European Parliament, European Commission, Member States and Civil Society Organisations.

The conference was fully booked with over 50 participants joining in from all over the world (EU Member States, Greater Europe, Brazil, Philippines, and others). The event was held virtually, due to the Covid19 pandemic and moderated by Chris Baker, Programme Head Water Resources at Wetlands International.

Water Management for the sake of reversing biodiversity decline and improving the freshwater environment needs to be holistic to be successful, and as such the event reflected this through the number of topics brought forward during the sessions, not to mention the great content provided by all of the event’s speakers.

In summary, the event covered everything from the current situation for freshwater in Europe, including the supporting nature of current and future freshwater, pollution and biodiversity legislation and strategies; the 25,000 km river restoration target in the EU; an illustration how effective restoration and protection measures are and what best options are; what finance options are available or merits further exploration; and what Member States are doing regarding the restoration and protection of our rivers for the future; zooming in to specific examples and regions.

Actions

Taking the above, and from discussions during the event, several identified actions can be deemed crucial in ensuring EU and Europe-wide enabling conditions for holistic, dedicated river restoration and protection initiatives and long-term strategies. These three key strands and their necessary next steps will only be possible with the support from the European Parliament, Council, Commission, Member States and Stakeholders:

  1. The proposals for freshwater ecosystem restoration in the EU Biodiversity strategy for 2030;
  • The ambitious commitments within the Strategy are the right steps in the right direction for securing a future for European freshwater biodiversity, and should be endorsed by the Council; thus giving the needed impetus towards implementation
  • Specifically, the 25,000 km river connectivity restoration target needs to be upheld;
  1. The Water Framework Directive is a robust instrument to deliver on freshwater protection and restoration needs – fit for its purpose.
  • Member States need to adopt ambitious River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) in 2021, aiming to achieve good status for rivers and other water bodies by 2027. The RBMPs must include measures for the removal of primarily obsolete obstacles in rivers and wetland restoration to deliver on the target of 25,000 km of free-flowing rivers.
  1. The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 in conjunction with the Water Framework Directive has the potential for an increased level of protection for rivers, through complementarity;
  • Rivers in (near) natural condition need to receive protected area designations, an approach a few Member States are already taking or exploring, as contribution to a coherent network of protected areas;
  • The linkage between protection and restoration needs to be emphasised, to make sure that restored rivers remain restored and free-flowing, granting these a level of protection for the future;
  • Hydropower development, notably small hydropower plants, and its compatibility with environmental objectives related to biodiversity and water quality need to be assessed against the consequences of ecosystem fragmentation – especially, but not only, in the Western Balkans;
  • The Green Agenda for the Western Balkans should promote a balanced approach between renewable energy and infrastructure development, economic growth, and river conservation, primarily aiming to create a growth trajectory which is not based on unsustainable use of ecosystems but rather recognise their contribution to well-being and economic growth;
  • There is a need to make stakeholders and the public more aware of the issues and developments around freshwater, and what the role and long-term benefits of nature-based solutions to these problems are.

As all the above topics and points are a part of the puzzle in solving the problems Europe’s rivers are facing, a comprehensive image of what Europe is currently doing, and needs to do in the future for our rivers, can effectively be portrayed.

Western Balkans

This is especially the case for the Western Balkans and specifically the EU Candidate Countries – mentioned frequently in the event – who are looking to transpose EU Environmental Acquis, and because of the region’s near pristine river systems and other freshwater bodies. The Green Agenda for the Western Balkans was discussed in relation to these questions, and it is clear it sets out to do much on the question of pollution issues and development aspects in the region, including tackling direct freshwater issues. The timing of the Green Agenda, Biodiversity Strategy, combined with the transposition of EU water law, couldn’t be timelier in the discussion around the balancing renewable energy development, growth, and the threat of fragmentation of the watersheds in the Western Balkans. Ideally, the resources unleashed by governments and the EU would also rather underpin and not contradict these objectives.

An important point, is that the EU Biodiversity Strategy should aim to support the preparation of the National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs) under the Convention on Biological Diversity’s new Global Biodiversity Framework (post 2020), especially for Western Balkan and Neighbourhood Countries, where the EU Acquis and guidelines don’t directly apply, yet their river systems in need of a strategic approach for restoration and conservation purposes

National cases

Member States are acting on the calls by global (CBD), regional (EU) as well as stakeholders, like NGO actors, the science community and other groupings, at varying scales for river conservation. Member State representatives from Finland, France, Slovenia, and Spain illustrated at the event measures currently being taken to tackle the question of restoration and protection of rivers, and that these initiatives have been successful, even if certain aspects are still need to be extended and further developed. In general, these initiatives seem to have the potential to evolve into holistic approaches dedicated to contribute to biodiversity restoration, especially with the new EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 and an EU Water Framework Directive which is ‘fit for purpose’ in mind.

Political will

As for a very first step, restoring 25,000 km of our European priority rivers, is a vital steppingstone in breathing new life into the ‘blue veins’ of our continent. In this, many speakers expressed their confidence that the European Parliament, and the European Commission, will full heartedly pass on the message that rivers – Europe’s lifelines – need our utmost attention, and foster the political will to prioritise our freshwater ecosystems, stepping up the political discussions around the future for our rivers.

Recording of the webinar

 

Timeline: 

4:38 min       Yurena Lorenzo, Wetlands International – Opening words

10:55 min     Pär Holmgren, European Parliament Representative – Opening words

19:42 min     Hans Stielstra, European Commission (DG ENV) – Opening words

29:50 min     Eef Silver, Wetlands International – The Main Pressures on Freshwater Ecosystems & Water Quality 

46:48 min     Henrik Österblad, TNC – Why Protect and Restore Rivers & Why Now? Natural, Economic, Social  Benefits & Policy Context

1:16:25 min   Hans Stielstra, European Commission (DG ENV) –  Legal Basis and Rationale for supporting River Restoration and Protection

1:36:22 min   Eef Silver, Wetlands International – Legal Basis and Rationale for supporting River Restoration and Protection

1:57:16 min   Saija Koljonen (FI), Daniel Rojšek (SI), Corinne Belveze (FR), Fernando Magdaleno (ES) – Panel Discussion River Conservation in Member States: Effective Restoration & Protection to date, Successful legal frameworks for River Conservation at National Level   

3:15:00 min    Wouter Helmer & Helena Newell, Rewilding Europe – The Money Flow: Financing Restoration 

3:36:09 min    Tara Moberg, TNC  – Durable River Protection Designations  & the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

3:53:05 min    Irma Popović Dujmović, WWF Adria – The Western Balkans – Pristine Rivers, Abundance and Threats 

4:14:30 min    Madalina Ivanica, European Commission (DG ENV), Neven Trenc, Croatian Ministry for   Sustainable Development, Institute for Nature Protection, Irma Popović Dujmović, WWF Adria – Panel discussion: The Green Deal & Green Agenda for the Western Balkans and views from the region

4:36:43 min    Claire Baffert, Living Rivers Europe NGO coalition – EP Resolution on the Water Framework Directive

4:50:51 min    Marianne Kleiberg, TNC – summary from the discussions and closing Statements

Download the summary report here:

The full report of the event can be downloaded here:

Download all speakers’ presentations here.

To look back at the programme, please go here.

 

 

Header image: Sava River © Damir Spanic on Unsplash