Tuesday, 01 June 2021 14:51

Drivers of sustainable development

A Policy Brief from the Policy Learning Platform on Environment and resource efficiency


Rivers and wetlands are critical for life on Earth since they provide a wide range of ecosystem services upon which species and habitats, as well as humans and their socio-economic activities entirely, depend, such as food, biodiversity, water and climate regulation. Yet available data point both to their continuous degradation as well as to limited and slow-paced efforts to restore their natural functions. 

According to the European Environmental Agency (EEA), only around 40% of the 110,000 bodies of surface water in the EU (i.e. rivers, lakes and transitional and coastal waters) are currently in good ecological status and only 38% in a good chemical status1, which will make it hard to achieve the corresponding goals set by the Water Framework Directive. The Global Wetland Outlook published by the Secretariat of the Ramsar Convention on wetlands of international importance also portrays a worrying situation as it reports that our continent lost 35% of its inland and coastal wetlands since 1970. Most damages are being recorded in Mediterranean Europe, where almost half of the natural wetlands have disappeared.

The present policy brief aims to provide a clear overview on how the current EU policy framework may guide and support local and regional authorities in the implementation of river and wetland restoration measures and of nature-based solutions to improve or reverse the abovementioned trends. It also intends to put the spotlight on the wealth of good practices from Interreg Europe projects that can serve as an inspiration for untapping the potential of rivers as drivers of local and regional sustainable development. In this respect, particular attention will be devoted to showcasing ways to valorise the natural and cultural heritage along inland watercourses, foster sustainable transport on inland waterways, integrate wetlands in green-blue infrastructures and preserve nature and culture around river mouths.


Challenges for inland waters

Rivers and wetlands are subjected to multiple pressures mainly related to land-use change and pollution. Land-use change impacting these natural resources has been a reality in Europe for centuries. Wide-scale wetland drainage projects as well as the canalisation of rivers and streams have been undertaken to free space for agriculture and urban development, swiping away these water bodies or altering their ecological character.

A factor that historically weighted on the modification of rivers is the construction of large dams and barriers along river axis to enable the generation of electricity by hydropower plants. In many cases around Europe such projects have led to an impoverishment of the ecological status of rivers since, besides influencing their flows, they also affected biodiversity and ecosystems hosted by the latter. Among others, this has been identified as the main cause of the 93% decline in migratory freshwater fish witnessed in Europe in the last five decades2.


Removing barriers

The EEA has recently taken a strong stance in favour of the removal of obsolete barriers to restore European rivers into their free-flowing state. The Agency in fact reported that barriers – over 1 million throughout the continent – constitute a significant pressure for over 20% of surface water bodies and indicated that dam removal can be a viable solution for restoring river continuity, especially if targeted at obsolete barriers3. The Agency, therefore, encouraged the prioritisation of measures to restore continuity and the adoption of strategies and coordinated approaches in this regard at all levels. At the same time, it recognised that the use of barriers along watercourses remains necessary for activities such as hydropower production, navigation and flood protection, which are supported by various EU policies and instruments. Hydropower, for instance, will be essential to decarbonise the energy mix and achieve RED II targets4 for 2030 in many regions and the ongoing efforts to partially shift onto inland waterways freight transport will also continue to require the regulation of river flows through barriers.

Barriers to the exploitation of rivers for hydro-electrical purposes or otherwise regulating their flows are not the sole factor that contributes to detaching them from their floodplains and to deteriorating their ecological status. As indicated above, also urban development and agriculture concur greatly to altering river conditions as well as those of lakes, transitional, coastal waters, seas and groundwater bodies.

The European agricultural sector, in particular, should undergo meaningful changes to decrease the pressure it exerts on water bodies, according to another recent EEA report5. The Agency called upon EU policymakers to recognise the value of agroecological principles, organic farming and nature-based solutions for greening agriculture in Europe and suggested that the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) should encourage their wider uptake. Nature-based solutions, for instance, can be very effective in limiting at source pollution caused by farming, hence reducing this type of pressure on water bodies while also delivering on greenhouse gas emission reductions and biodiversity protection.


Restoring rivers and wetlands

The importance of restoring rivers and wetlands and implementing nature-based solutions has been notably stressed also by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in its 2019 ‘Global report on biodiversity and ecosystem services. The report, which provides an independent scientific assessment on the state of nature worldwide and aims to inform the development of the post-2020 multilateral framework on biodiversity6, defines a series of ‘approaches of sustainability that governments, public authorities, communities and private stakeholders are invited to adopt for the purpose of restoring, protecting and enhancing nature and generating multiple long-term socio-economic benefits.

Some of these approaches to sustainability entail taking actions for preventing the degradation of wetlands to enable the effective management and sustainable use of terrestrial landscapes and to improve freshwater management, protection and connectivity. Concerning nature-based solutions, the IPBES global report suggests that they should be integrated into approaches to sustainability aimed at building sustainable cities, where their cost-effective utilisation can strengthen the green infrastructure and sustain urban development in a manner that contributes to climate mitigation and adaptation.


The current EU policy context

Presented by the European Commission as the growth strategy that will guide the transition towards a carbon-neutral economy by 2050, the European Green Deal (EGD) also constitutes the relevant framework for the topic addressed by this policy brief. The EGD communication has indeed introduced the overarching goal of restoring the natural functions of ground and surface waters ‘to preserve and restore biodiversity in lakes, rivers, wetlands and estuaries, and to prevent and limit the damage from floods’. The fact that rivers and wetlands are high on the EU policy agenda is furthermore confirmed by the assessment of a series of policy instruments adopted under the EGD since its inception in December 2019, which have further shed light on how to implement the various aspects of the aforementioned goal and on how rivers and wetlands can help European cities and regions to become carbon neutral. 


Interreg Europe Policy Learning Platform on Environment and resource efficiency

Thematic experts:
Marco Citelli & Astrid Severin