Protecting the Amazon of Europe
When I was a little boy, I spent some wonderful days on the banks of the Drava River by Klagenfurt. Before this stretch of the river became a chain of reservoirs, I chased lizards and frogs there, learnt to swim in the river and roasted fish on the campfire with my parents. I have never lost my love for the Drava. Now it is part of my professional life as a WWF river expert.
The river paradise of my childhood still exists –– but unfortunately hardly in Austria, where most flowing water bodies fell victim to electricity production. Between environmentalists and the electricity industry, there is a bitter struggle over the few remaining pieces of intact riverine nature. If you are looking for river landscapes and floodplain forests of the kind that were typical of the whole of Central Europe in the past, you must travel a longer way: near Spielfeld in the Steiermark along the Grenzmur River begins a 700 km long, mostly untouched floodplain belt that stretches from Austria across Slovenia, Hungary and Croatia to Serbia.
A total of 800, 000 ha of river paradise with everything that belongs to it – gravel banks, steep banks, river islands, floodplain forests and old river arms…This unique landscape along the Mura, Drava and Danube rivers is home to rare species such as the White-tailed eagle, Black stork, and Sand martin in such variety and density that is almost unimaginable in Europe.
As a student I have explored these natural floodplains dozens of times by boat, and I mapped them for my thesis. It is such a privilege for me as a WWF employee to be part of a campaign for the preservation of ‘my’ dream landscape for the benefit of all European citizens. After all, the floodplains of the Mura, the Drava and the Danube are a place of leisure and nature experience for the locals. They provide clean drinking water and offer natural flood protection. But since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the pressure on river landscapes has increased steadily. River regulation and straightening, digging for gravel and sand are gradually destroying their naturalness.
The “European Amazon” is the first five-country protected areaAfter more than 20 years of work (including 10 years at the WWF) it was a real personal highlight for me when in March this year the environmental ministers of Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia and Serbia signed a declaration on the long-term protection of the riverine and floodplain landscapes along the Danube, the Drava and the Mura by creating a huge UNESCO biosphere reserve. But I have been working at the WWF long enough to be aware that the designation of a protected area may be a short-term victory, and it cannot provide lasting protection against the desire for profit or other interests. Environmentalists must remain vigilant and defend nature against usage interests!
While I keep working for the designation of the biosphere park with my colleague Tanja Nikowitz, there are some quite different plans that are threatening the Danube and the Drava.
Retrograde river management threatens nature paradisesOver the last few years there has been a boom in Hungary, Serbia, and above all Croatia, of project plans to transform natural river currents into canals, to build huge river embankments of shot rock, as well as to dig millions of tons of gravel and sand from the river beds. These plans are as persistent as they are pointless.
In short, this is old-fashioned river management whose legitimacy is based only on the fact that things have always been done in this way in the past, and that it can be lucrative to some people. The destruction of rivers is taken as a matter of course.
A total of 111 km along the Danube and the Drava – the core zone of the future biosphere reserve – are to be regulated. Particularly threatened is the unique floodplain area of Kopacki rit at the confluence of the two rivers at Osijek. Recently we attracted attention to this threat by an international regatta. ,,Stop channelling the Danube – Save Europe's Amazon” stood on banners in several languages. This campaign caused a large media response in Croatia.
Fighting for Europe’s natural heritageValuable nature landscapes like the floodplains of the Mura, the Drava and the Danube are protected on paper by European water and environmental legislation – but unfortunately their protection in reality is totally insufficient. Therefore it is one of the most important parts of our work to attract the attention of the EU to the problems of rivers.
By constantly informing the European Commission about the events and plans, in 2009 we achieved an investigation by independent EU experts of the regulation projects along the Drava in Croatia. The conclusion was that the regulation measures violated EU legislation and did not comply with international standards, therefore they had to be stopped. This recognition of our work gives us strength to continue to fight with all out energy against the destruction of Croatian rivers in order to preserve them as our common European natural heritage. Let the rivers flow freely!
This text was published in Panda Magazine issued by WWF Austria.