World Environment Day: River restoration is in the hands of our generation

World Environment Day: River restoration is in the hands of our generation

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By Alexis Katsaros, Executive Director of MedINA and
Alexandra Pappa, MedINA’s Freshwater Programme Manager

In recent years, efforts to protect and restore nature have been stepped up by local communities, various organisations, members of the international scientific community and the European Union. However, the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems continue unabated. This also has an impact on the human communities that are affected – sometimes in an irreversible way. Nature can no longer provide its services if the healthy ecosystems that provide food security and protection from natural disasters are degraded and further threatened from climate crisis. Clean and free water, a source of life for nature and humankind, is hard to come by. Overall, the ecosystem services necessary for our long-term survival, prosperity, and security, as well as Europe’s resilience, are in crisis.

In this context, the European Commission is proposing an important and ambitious new European law, the EU Nature Restoration Law. Key dates in the process are the 15th June when the European Parliament’s Environment Committee is due to vote on it and mid-July, when it is due to be debated and voted on in plenary. Despite the confusing environmental messages, the European Union sends from time to time, the proposed legislation is important because it includes a set of new binding targets to restore 20% of the EU’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems by 2030 and is a powerful tool to address the challenges we have been called to meet. It can help address extreme climate events such as droughts and floods, bring significant benefits to people’s health and well-being, and contribute to the creation of new jobs in a variety of sectors, as well as opportunities to develop a sustainable tourism model. It builds on existing environmental policy, such as the European Green Deal and the European Biodiversity Strategy 2030. Its ultimate aim is to ensure that Europe’s ecosystems are restored, resilient and adequately protected.

Barrier removal is a promising tool for restoring river ecosystems.

The EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 calls -inter alia- for the restoration of Europe’s rivers, which are fragmented with over 1 million barriers and dams. The Strategy aims to ensure that 25 000 km of European rivers are restored by 2030. This can be achieved by removing barriers such as dams and weirs. For its part, the draft law proposes to identify the barriers that impede the free flow of rivers and the free communication of species and to remove, as a matter of urgency and priority, obsolete barriers and those that are no longer in use. This will restore the natural connectivity of rivers and their floodplains, freeing up fish migration routes and spawning grounds, and increasing populations of freshwater migratory fish species that have become almost extinct, with a current population decline of 93%.

The removal site at River Kent: before and after the removal operations of Bowston Weir.
Photos by South Cumbria Rivers Trust ©

Many Member States have proactively included dam removal in their national legislation, while at the same time the European Dam Removal Movement has developed and spread massively across European countries. In 2022, the movement set a new record with at least 325 dams demolished across Europe, a 36% increase from the previous record set in 2021. The ever-increasing number of dams being demolished is a great success, but there is still a long way to go and Greece will soon be asked to contribute to European targets on nature restoration not least through dam removal. This is aligned also with the global freshwater challenge of restoring 300,000 km of degraded rivers by 2030, a target set at the recent United Nations Water Conference held in New York.

It is therefore our generation’s mission to begin to bring down some of these barriers and restore the free flow of our rivers for our health and well-being, but primarily for future generations. At the same time, we must preserve some of Europe’s last free-flowing rivers in their current wild state, the most emblematic being the Aoos-Vjosa river.