River Rhine commended for river basin management

News Published 13 Sep 2013 Last modified 21 Jun 2016
2 min read
Photo: © Nietnagel
The River Rhine has won the first ever International River Foundation (IRF) European River Prize, which is given for remarkable achievements in integrated river basin management. The other finalists were the Órbigo River in Spain, the Upper Drau in Austria, and the Mura-Drava-Danube in Central Europe.

River basin management of the Rhine has improved dramatically in recent years, following decades of degradation and a devastating chemical accident in 1986. The river runs through Switzerland, France, Germany, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Austria, Liechtenstein, Belgium and Italy.

The International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine (ICPR), the countries and local authorities in the basin have dramatically improved the water quality of the Rhine with better management of urban wastewater. In addition, a large area of floodplains has been restored in the densely populated Rhine basin over the last 15 years, thanks to new integrated policies.

The International River Foundation award was presented in Vienna on Thursday 12 September. An expert from the European Environment Agency (EEA) participated in the Judging Panel, alongside other experts from across Europe.

The panel selected the Rhine as the winner as they were able to clearly demonstrate leadership, sophistication and an integrated, complex approach to river basin management. They also recognised that the Rhine had overcome a range of challenges and achieved real on-ground improvements in river and species health.

Rivers under pressure

The IRF Award process highlights the fact that human activities use a lot of water, depleting many rivers. For example, across the European Union, agriculture uses about a quarter of water diverted from the natural environment, though this can be up to 80% in southern Europe. This could be reduced by making irrigation more efficient, according to an EEA assessment published last year.

While there has been some progress in reducing pollution from farming, pollution from such ‘diffuse’ sources remains a significant pressure in more than 40 % of Europe’s river water bodies. Pollution also comes from ‘point sources’, such as discharges from wastewater treatment plants and industry. Wastewater from sewage systems often overflows during heavy rains.

When the shape of rivers is changed, this affects the ecosystems living from the river – for example fish and other animals may not be able to migrate when there are dams and other barriers in the way. The EEA estimates there are several hundred thousand barriers in European rivers, in many of these water bodies their natural continuity is interrupted every second kilometre.

Such ‘hydromorphological pressures’, together with pollution are two of the main pressures affecting ecological status in European rivers. Overall, the European Commission estimates that more than half (57 %) of the river water bodies in Europe have not yet achieved ‘good ecological status’, something which they are committed to by 2015 under the Water Framework Directive (WFD).


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