Living European Rivers

Posted on February, 26 2018

WWF is launching a new initiative to bring life back to Europe’s rivers
Rivers are the lifeblood of Europe. They provide us with water, food, transport, and power, supporting the economies of rural communities and major cities across the continent. They also provide us with many of our fondest memories as well as wonderful spots to fish, birdwatch, swim and sunbathe.

But their beauty is often skin deep. Dip below the surface and the picture is murkier.

Freshwater species are declining in many parts of Europe; fish, frogs, birds, silently slipping away. Rivers continue to be polluted with agricultural run-off and industrial chemicals. Cut off from their floodplains, many now pose a greater flood risk than ever before.

Most rivers have been fragmented by dams – many of them obsolete – that block the flow of sediments and present an impenetrable barrier to migratory fish, so culturally and environmentally important species like sturgeon, salmon and eel have vanished from much of the continent.

There has been some progress since the EU enacted landmark freshwater regulations in 2000 but the majority of the continent's rivers and lakes are far from healthy. And the threats are not diminishing, particularly with hundreds of new dams planned across the continent, especially in the Danube basin and the Balkans. There are even moves afoot to try and water down the laws.

So WWF is launching the Living European Rivers initiative to bring life back to the continent’s rivers.

And there is real hope: the potential for river recovery is amazing! Remove a dam, push back a dyke, reconnect a floodplain and shortly salmon and other wildlife will return, riverine vegetation will flourish and people will start benefiting.

Supported by the EU’s landmark water management law – the Water Framework Directive – this new approach aims to achieve major conservation impact through a paradigm shift by changing people’s perception of the value of rivers for humans and wildlife; redirecting financial flows into green water infrastructure and more sustainable water projects; and demonstrating that nature based solutions are critical to mitigating flooding, adapting to climate change and improving the status of Europe’s rivers, lakes and wetlands and its freshwater biodiversity.

Together with partners, WWF will :
  • Protect the last European free-flowing rivers. Especially in the Balkans and Easter Europe, but also in Spain, France, Italy and Finland where spectacular free-flowing rivers are not sufficiently protected. We will map these unique free-flowing rivers on a European map and advocate for their protection, including by working with the communities along these rivers.
  • Restore degraded rivers through dam removals. There are opportunities to remove some of the thousands of obsolete dams throughout Europe, which can reconnect rivers and kick-start effective restoration. John Waldman, a professor of biology at Queens College in New York, wrote an influential paper in 2015 arguing that “no other action can bring ecological integrity back to rivers as effectively as dam removals” and this has been demonstrated in the US, but also increasingly in Europe, particularly in countries such as France, Spain and Finland. Dam removal is especially relevant for small and medium size rivers.
  • Embark on large river restoration programmes. WWF envisages a long term programme to give major rivers (such as the Danube, Rhine, Elbe) more space by reconnecting and enlarging floodplains and restoring nature in these floodplains.
  • Defend the Water Framework Directive (WFD). This landmark piece of law revolves around a key idea – we must conserve our freshwater ecosystems if we want to have sufficient amount of water of sufficient quality in the future. It provides a legal basis and a framework for water ecosystem protection and restoration in Europe. While it has been praised for helping to reverse the trend of ecological decline of rivers, there is a high risk that WFD could be watered down during an upcoming review process. WWF and partners will campaign to preserve the Directive and advocate for greater implementation.
It will be a huge challenge. Europe’s rivers have long been dammed and dredged and degraded and they now face huge new threats. But we’ve shown that rivers can be protected and can be restored. For the benefit of people and nature across Europe, we need to seize this opportunity to work with partners across the continent to bring our rivers back to life.
Whirlpool with pieces of ice in water, Oulanka National Park, Finland
© Wild Wonders of Europe / Sven Zacek / WWF
Kitkajoki River, Oulanka National Park, Finland
© Wild Wonders of Europe / Widstrand / WWF
Aquatic vegetation on the Danube
© Michel Gunther / WWF
Low clouds over the River Danube flowing through the Iron Gate Gorge, Serbia
© Wild Wonders of Europe / Ruben Smit / WWF