Fresh hope for ecologically sensitive rivers in the Danube basin



Posted on 19 June 2013  | 
Hydroelectric power stations, such as this one on the Danube River, generate energy that is renewable but not necessarily sustainable
© © Michel GUNTHER / WWF-CanonEnlarge
Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina - At a high-level meeting of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River today representatives of Danube basin countries, including Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and the Ukraine, adopted guidelines for reducing the ecological damage of new hydropower projects.

“WWF and other NGOs had to fight hard over the past two years to make these guidelines acceptable", said Irene Lucius, Head of Policy at WWF Danube-Carpathian Program. “Our rivers have suffered enough from hydropower plants built in ecologically vulnerable places and/or with outdated technology and Danube basin countries cannot afford repeating the mistakes of the past - healthy rivers systems provide a long list of services to people such as the provision of drinking water or lowering flood risk”.

The document recommends keeping particularly sensitive river sections - such as protected areas, stretches of high ecological status or headwaters - free of hydropower development.

It also promotes proper planning at national and regional level in other sections of rivers (beside exclusion) and in this context an adequate consideration of ecological and cultural values.

The guidance furthermore suggests that hydropower plants must lower the damage to fish populations and other freshwater organisms as far as possible and explains how this can be achieved.

However, the biggest challenge lies ahead. “The guiding principles will mean nothing if they won´t be applied quickly and comprehensively for preventing irreversible damage by the tide of new hydropower projects", added Irene Lucius. “In particular, we expect Danube basin countries with NGO involvement to designate new “no go” areas for hydropower and to take natural and cultural values of our rivers sufficiently into account when planning new projects. “Not knowing how” is not an excuse any more. Governments can count on us watching them carefully.”

The 14 countries of the Danube basin working together under the umbrella of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) have decided to develop “Guiding Principles on Hydropower Development”.

Several regional NGO networks, in particular WWF, IAD, EEA and DEF, have participated in this process as observers. The ICPDR Standing Working Group meets every June to take high level decisions. The agenda of this meeting on 18 and 19 June included the decision on the hydropower ”Guiding Principles”.

Hydropower plants impact river systems in various ways. Their dams prevent fish and other organisms from moving to their spawning or feeding grounds. They also alter the natural shape and movement of rivers, which changes both river and floodplain habitats of birds and diminish the self-cleaning properties of rivers.

It is therefore of paramount importance to establish exclusion areas for new hydropower infrastructure and to locate new plants in areas where ecological value is lowest, keeping damage at a minimum. As the environment knows no borders, areas of high and low ecological importance should be defined on the basin level as well as nationally.

Although Danube basin countries must invest in building renewable energy capacity, hydropower is by far not the only technology on offer and energy saving should be the first step towards saving the climate.

In Austria, for example, damming the last rivers with hydropower plants would help meeting the growing energy demand of the country for five years only.

In countries such as Romania, the potential for increasing energy efficiency and therefore lowering the demand for energy is enormous. This shows that only a mix of measures, first of all energy saving and energy efficiency and then the use of different renewable energy sources can be the long-term solution.

At EU level, these issues have been taken seriously for many years. The EU Water Directors endorsed a “Policy Paper on the Water Framework Directive and Hydromorphology” during their meeting on 30 November – 1 December 2006, suggesting “some of the remaining unregulated rivers in areas of high values could be designated as “no-go” areas for hydropower schemes”. This approach was confirmed by a statement of the Water Directors in May 2010.
Hydroelectric power stations, such as this one on the Danube River, generate energy that is renewable but not necessarily sustainable
© © Michel GUNTHER / WWF-Canon Enlarge

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