There are many challenges. I would highlight the lack of integration among different interests and sectors. We are promoting solutions responding to the needs of different interests. For example, in many cases, the risk and impact of flooding can be decreased by restoring former floodplains or wetlands, providing benefits for nature and humans.
Partly related to this, another significant challenge is to make decision makers, stakeholders aware of the fact that a healthy river ecosystem provides us with a lot of valuable goods and services. So to preserve or improve the status of these areas is not only in the interest of animal or plant species, but also crucial for the wellbeing of humans.
A healthy river with its floodplains can ensure flood protection, water purification, drinking water, biomass, wood, grazing land, ecotourism, fish and food, just to mention a few.
In general, a major challenge is to avoid further deterioration of freshwater ecosystems from unsustainable infrastructure projects connected to navigation, hydropower, gravel extraction or flood protection. There are areas where these interventions simply should not happen, and other areas that are less valuable for nature where they are acceptable. Here we try to identify compromises and find solutions which have less negative impact on the rivers.
A serious challenge is to also protect and improve the populations of the different Sturgeon species in the Danube, which are suffering from different pressures, including overexploitation due to the illegal trade in caviar as well as the loss of spawning sites. In order to secure populations of Danube sturgeons, we are contributing to habitat identification, strengthening law enforcement, working with fishermen to develop alternative incomes, reintroducing species and lobbying decisionmakers.
What are the greatest freshwater successes of the past decade or so?
WWF is working at different levels from the local, through the national and regional to the EU levels. Policy and advocacy work, training and capacity building, education and awareness raising, campaigning as well as practical field projects where we prove what we are saying is feasible and works – these are all activities in our “repertoire”.
At each of the levels I mentioned we have successes, both larger and smaller ones, and each is important since they all drive us toward our final goal while also keeping us motivated.
Just to mention some:
In 2000, WWF played a key role in facilitating the Lower Danube Green Corridor agreement in which the governments of Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine committed themselves to protect and restore important habitats along the last 1,000 kilometers of the Lower Danube.
Together with relevant authorities and partners, we have been working hard to realise a similar initiative, the Mura-Drava-Danube Transboundary Biosphere Reserve which would be the world’s first five-country protected area.
In several countries and on several rivers, we have managed to prevent further deterioration of habitats threatened by harmful interventions like unsustainable dams or gravel extractions from the riverbed.
We have restored many wetlands and floodplains in Central and Eastern European countries – at present, we have over 25 wetland and floodplain restoration projects completed, ongoing or planned across the Danube basin. In several places we have managed to foster local businesses with local communities benefiting from nature conservation or restoration.
We have managed to get sturgeon conservation on the “political agenda” and have made significant contributions towards their conservation.
How do you hope to see the future of freshwater of the Danube-Carpathian region?
My dream is that decision makers, interest groups and the public realize that nature conservation is FOR the people. Without healthy nature we will lose the above mentioned services and lose the ground under our feet.
We need to replace the short-term economic interest of some interest groups with long-term thinking for the benefit of society as a whole.