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A Brief History of River Conservation

For most people, corals are better looking than trouts, and surfers are more popular than fishermen.

It will have come to your attention that oceans, overfishing and coral conservation have received a lot of attention in recent years. These subjects – absolutely vital to the good health of the planet, have left river conservation in somewhat of a competitive philanthropy disadvantage. For most people, corals are better looking than trouts, and surfers are more popular than fishers.

Rivers are the most ancient, most essential areas of settlement of Humans. Why? Because of freshwater, fish, protection, and communications. From early settlements on riparian islands (see Paris, London, Berlin-New York) to the darkest hours of the industrial era, rivers progressively went from being sources of life to environmental and health hazards.

1828 illustration of the Monster Soup "commonly called Thames water" (Credit: British Museum)
1828 illustration of the Monster Soup “commonly called Thames water”
(Credit: British Museum)

Today, and since the 1970s, Europe realised its most ancient communication sources could not be left to become open-air sewers for heavy industrial activities.

Housekeeping duties

By the XXth century, nature’s position in Europe had become untenable. All major rivers were virtually dead zones, forests had been reduced to less than 20% of the land coverage, and very little regulations limited destruction, even in the most valuable natural zones of the continent.

In this context, emphasised by the nascent green movement, the EU launched one of its most ambitious programmes to date. Natura 2000 is the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world. 18% of the European land area and 6 % of its water area are covered by this conservation programme.

Natura 2000 is so important in the moral and political framework of the EU that candidates must submit potential areas to be added to the network before being considered for membership.

Natura 2000 logo
Natura 2000 logo

The EU Water Framework Initiative 2000 set more particular milestones for freshwater quality control. The 2015 target of reaching “good condition” for every water body in the continent has not been achieved. The deadline has been pushed to 2027 at the latest. If major progress has been attained since that Thames illustration, new problems have arisen.

One-eyed environmentalism

These directives focused on lowering ground pollution due to agriculture, heavy industries and urban land grabs. However, these directives did not limit in any way dams and hydropower stations on European water streams.

Better yet, hydraulic power was heralded as the best carbon-free technology to produce electricity. This standpoint only forgot to assess the impact these structures would have on ecosystems along the entire length of the river. Because of their reliability (rivers always flow, unlike wind), their carbon advantage (dams emit very little CO2 once they run), and the gratuity of water as a common resource, dams have become very popular projects to fund. Bonus for investors, hydropower structures are not submitted to the obligation of an environmental impact assessment.

One of the dams on the Piva rivers. No mandatory impact assessment for this one either (Credit: RiverWatch)
One of the dams on the Piva rivers. No mandatory impact assessment for this one either (Credit: RiverWatch)

The World Bank, the EU Bank for reconstruction and development, as well as, other international development and funding agencies, have made dams their staple projects to show their commitment to both economic growth and sustainable transition.

The hydropower potential of Western Europe had already been tapped. It is no surprise then, that most dam and hydropower stations fundings flowed towards Eastern Europe, and more precisely in the Balkans, which sports one of the largest, most dense and most powerful river systems in Europe. An Eldorado for investors, large public works and energy companies, and local politics who benefited from an influx of capital, credits and public subventions.

The Balkans and the rivers

The Balkan peninsula is one of the cradles of human history. This mythical region, surrounded by mountains, seas and at the intersection of three large cultural and continental blocks is also one of the most precious and best-preserved natural areas in the world.

Aerial shot of a river in Montenegro (Credit: Mika Korhonen)
Aerial shot of a river in Montenegro
(Credit: Mika Korhonen)

Rapids and rivers have always been part of the region’s historical organisation. The great Danube is the largest and most famous river of this drainage basin. The river delta is the largest in Europe and extends from Romania to Ukraine.

The “strong and swift” river, as the ancient Thracians called it has always been a political organiser of this region. During most of Roman times, the river was a famous frontier of the empire. Up until today, the Balkans are commonly delimited by the SočaVipavaKrkaSavaDanube borders.

The Blue(ish) Danube

The Danube is the river that flows through most countries in the world. From the Black Forest in Germany to the Black sea coast, the river stretches through 10 countries, and its tributaries cover 10 others. This river system provides freshwater to roughly 60 million people.

Climate change has drastic effects on the great Danube river (Credit: European Commission)
Climate change has drastic effects on the great Danube river
(Credit: European Commission)

The Danube river conservation (and exploitation) protocols are governed by the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR), a multi-governmental organisation. The river was considered largely dead when the commission struck a deal with all countries concerned in 1998 protecting the entire river, as well as its tributaries and (extremely importantly) its groundwater reserves.

The convention signed in Sofia made provisions for pollution prevention, but also against ice and flooding hazards to ensure its fair use for commercial and communication reasons. If the levels of pollution in European rivers both in Eastern and Western Europe have gone down, so have the flow, the intensity and the commercial traffic. All because of the dam question.

Carbon is not the only problem of the planet

There are 2700 hydropower plants planned for construction in the region for the next two years alone. Formerly undeveloped land, protected areas, and endangered species residing therein face severe risks. Approximately 113 dam projects are planned in national parks, and another 133 planned for Natura 2000 sites and other protected areas.

Rivers unite Dams Divide credit: RiverWatchRivers unite Dams Divide credit: RiverWatchRivers unite Dams Divide credit: RiverWatchRivers unite Dams Divide credit: RiverWatch
Rivers unite Dams Divide
(Credit: RiverWatch)

We have a responsibility to force the EU and its contractors to respect those conventions. Moreover, this model is not the model of sustainable development. Blocking rivers cannot be an option anymore, especially now that we have developed new technologies and distributed generation seems to be soaring so fast.

A Balkan river drying up due to water works upstream (Credit: RiverWatch)A Balkan river drying up due to water works upstream (Credit: RiverWatch)
A Balkan river drying up due to water-works upstream
(Credit: RiverWatch)

Because all in all, rivers are baby oceans. And without rivers, without clouds and rain, we would have no water. This campaign is not just about protecting old farmers or deconstructing the work achieved to tame these powerful forces of nature. It is about protecting a cycle that one can have trouble discerning when looking at a single piece of the puzzle. Like a hydraulic power plant. Or just one little stream in the misty mountains of Pirin.

But all these droplets are bonded together. Just like cells link to form our blood, rivers are the arteries of the Earth. By cutting the free flow of water, we clot the veins of nature. Let’s not give our Mom a heart attack.

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