On Sunday 24 September, in the context of the World Rivers Day 2023, MedINA was hosted on the website of ERT’s news channel, ertnews.gr, with an opinion piece by Alexandra Pappa, Freshwater Programme Manager and Alexis Katsaros, Executive Director of MedINA.
Read the full article below:
World Rivers Day 2023: river restoration is key
By Alexandra Pappa, Freshwater Programme Manager of MedINA and
Alexis Katsaros, Executive Director of MedINA
As every year, this year we are celebrating World Rivers Day to raise awareness of these important but unfortunately neglected and fragmented ecosystems of our planet. Some call them life-givers, others call them arteries of the earth, and others call them lifelines. And rightly so. Rivers ensure the balance of other ecosystems, as they are a source of life and host numerous species of plants and animals, as well as humans. After all, all life begins with water!
Man’s relationship with water dates back to 10,000 BC, when he began to build his societies and culture around water. The development of organised and numerous communities, coinciding with the development of agriculture, took place around major rivers and wetlands. Many customs, arts, such as ceramics, and traditions, such as local gastronomy, developed around water. People realised that taking care of the earth and using its natural resources respectfully would ensure their health and survival. Using traditional methods of water management, they protected water and passed it on to future generations.
But this began to change in the Middle Ages. Inland fish consumption increased, and rivers and streams near settlements began to be affected by pollution and dams. Water uses changed. Rivers began to be used much more as transport routes for goods, leading to the construction of canals. And of course, with the development of cities and new factories around them, our rivers became even more degraded. During the first industrial revolution, water use increased rapidly. Thousands of dams were built, affecting the migratory routes of millions of fish and other animals. And later, rivers were dammed, channeled and artificially diverted to other areas for intensive agriculture or shipping, while others were dried up and lost.
As a result, nutrients no longer flow freely to the sea and sediments are trapped behind dams, causing erosion of streams, river deltas and beaches. Aquifers are not being properly recharged, and fish are losing their breeding and feeding grounds. People, their property and the efforts of generations are flooded and destroyed overnight. All countries are counting their wounds in terms of loss of lives, domestic animals, crops, shelter and goods.
How do we address these challenges?
The international scientific community has been warning for decades that these phenomena will intensify with climate change and that the impacts will be increasingly devastating. It has therefore proposed solutions to mitigate them. In general, our whole ‘business – as – usual’ way of thinking about rivers will have to change. Experts say that if we restore our rivers, giving them back the space and functions we have so forcibly taken away, they will recover. If we remove obsolete barriers and restore floodplains and wetlands, we will ensure river connectivity. This will restore nutrient balance, sediment transport and the well-being of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and species. It will also improve water quality, mitigate the problem of drought and reduced flows, and recharge groundwater. River restoration will act as a shield against extreme weather events and the pressures we face from sea level rising. The risk of flooding will be averted by releasing water into the natural meanders of the rivers and their natural floodplains. There are also economic benefits. New jobs in river restoration will be created and the cost of maintaining obsolete and useless projects that are now in the wild will be reduced. Finally, the value of river restoration is also a cultural one. New recreational and leisure areas and activities will be developed around these areas.
Recognising the recommendations of the scientific community and assessing the economic, social and political costs of the damage caused to nature by man’s business as usual practices, the European Commission has now changed its policy and legislation on rivers. The existing EU legislative framework for inland waters is ambitious and fit for purpose, but implementation is lagging behind and enforcement needs to be strengthened. Under the Water Framework Directive, all freshwater systems should achieve good ecological status by 2027. The Birds and Habitats Directives and a range of other legislation and agreements require Member States to allow the transfer of sediment, the free movement of migratory fish, the achievement of favourable conservation status for certain species and habitats, and the restoration of biodiversity.
One of the pillars of the European Biodiversity Strategy to 2030, which aims to put Europe’s biodiversity on the road to recovery so that the world’s ecosystems are restored by 2050, is the restoration of rivers. This can be achieved by removing barriers to the passage of migratory fish and improving the flow of water and sediment. To help restore the natural functions of rivers, the Biodiversity Strategy sets a target of restoring at least 25,000 km of rivers to free-flowing rivers, mainly by removing obsolete barriers and restoring their floodplains and wetlands.
The urgency of the issue also requires public awareness and participation, which are critical to promoting positive change. By educating the public about the vital role that rivers play in our ecosystems and societies, we can create a groundswell of support for restoration efforts. At the same time, public participation in river restoration is more than a necessity. It is an opportunity to rally communities around a common goal. Community involvement can range from participating in clean-up campaigns and habitat restoration activities to supporting river-friendly policies through advocacy, citizen science initiatives and digital campaigns.
But how do we define a river as free flowing, and how well are Member States following scientists’ recommendations?
For a river to be free flowing, it must support the connectivity of water, sediment, nutrients, matter and organisms within the river system and with the surrounding landscape, as follows (a) connectivity upstream and downstream; (b) connectivity with floodplains and riparian areas; (c) connectivity with the aquifer and the atmosphere; (d) connectivity based on seasonality and flow.
In terms of Member States’ compliance, it is noteworthy that 71% of European River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) include river restoration through the removal of barriers in their design. On the contrary, Greece, a country with a Mediterranean climate that is severely affected by the effects of the climate crisis, has not yet included river restoration among its priorities.
This is an opportunity to do so now that the amendments to the RBMPs for our country have been put out to public consultation. More importantly, it is an opportunity for Greece to comply with the EU Nature Restoration Law, which also requires member states to restore 25,000 km of rivers, and which is now in the process of negotiations and trialogue. In this way, we will immediately fill the existing legal gap in river restoration, and we will be able to proceed immediately with the removal of human constructions from nature and other projects that will demonstrably correct the mistakes of the past and give the rivers space to recover.
As we embark on the journey of restoring our rivers, there are already successful examples for our country to be inspired by and learn from, such as the Border Meuse or ‘Grensmaas’, which started 30 years ago and is the largest initiative of its kind in Belgium and the Netherlands. This project has achieved results on four main fronts: flood risk reduction, healthy ecosystems, economic benefits from the development of eco-tourism and transnational cooperation.
Recent events remind us that we are at a critical juncture and the call for action is louder than ever. Restoring our rivers is an important part of a package of policies and actions that must be implemented to ensure the well-being of local communities and strengthen their resilience.
Featured image: Sarantaporos River, Epirus. Natural meanders that ‘brake’ the speed of the water © David Kern / MedINA.