Resilient rivers: the place we would like to be

August 10, 2023

“Over several days, we explored firsthand the significance of freshwater ecosystems for nature-based water management, sustainable forestry, waterway management, environmental accident mitigation, the practical challenges of rewilding, and so much more. It was a truly immersive experience that highlighted the beauty and fragility of rivers and reinforced the need to protect these ecosystems” commented Valerie Kendall, from MKO Ireland and one of the lecturers of the 4th edition of River University, which took place in the unique Oder Delta landscape, on the Polish-German border, on 31 July-4 August 2023.

Water salinity test during the River University 2023
Agnieszka Soboń / Rewilding Oder Delta

The environmental catastrophe in the Oder River from 2022 still shows its consequences nowadays – along with new issues and challenges – making it difficult to recover fully. To experience, understand and discuss the importance and the need for an integrated water management plan in the whole basin, the participants of this year’s edition of River University gathered in the Oder River basin, co-organized by Rewilding Oder Delta and Coalition Clean Baltic.

Key issues in the Odra basin

The biggest problems of the Oder River and its basin relate mainly to the poor quality of its surface waters and its hydromorphological transformation [1]. Above-normal amounts of toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and heavy metals are present in surface waters, coming from fossil fuel burning, transport and industrial emissions, result in poor chemical status of Oder waters. Coal mines, which still function in the trilateral Odra basin, are responsible for brine discharges that have a significant impact on the high salinity of the Oder River. Additionally, large technical investments in new dams for inland navigation and hydropower stations negatively affect the river’s natural capacity to self-regulate and, as a consequence, contribute to the current climate crisis.

In such a vulnerable riverine ecosystem, the concerns are high on the Polish, German and Czech sides.

There is still hope

Přemysl Soldán from T.G. Masaryk Water Research Institute during the lecture at River University 2023
Agnieszka Soboń / Rewilding Oder Delta

Data science gives hope to the local communities: the Oder River is alive[2]. Different species of fish and conditions for breeding are present, yet as a society, we hold the responsibility to help this river return to its full swing of life.

A coordinated approach of the different states (Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic) is essential: responsible ministries, as well as the lower authorities and intergovernmental organizations like the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM) and the International Commission on the Protection of the Oder against Pollution (ICPO), have to cooperate with each other for the management and protection of the Oder basin.

“The pressure on the Oder River is high, and it is not the only one. This is the point when catastrophe only waits to appear.”, commented Pavel Danihelka from UNECE Joint Expert Group on Water & Industrial Accidents during River University 2023 [3].

Continuous water quality monitoring is critical for detecting and preventing pollution discharges. Still, in the entire territory of the international basin of the Odra River, this activity is not being carried out now at any locality. It was done in the period 2004-2014, helping to discover and record a number of cases of significant deterioration of the biological quality of waters, but despite the advantages, the river basin management institutions stopped the activity after ten years [4]. Also, macroinvertebrates can play a role in biomonitoring, providing valuable information on the trends of biological changes based on their role in the ecosystem and unique characteristics [5].

Inputs from River University 2023

During the 5-days event, speakers, practitioners and guides stressed the importance of the river’s resilience, the ways to improve it, and the urgency to speed up the fulfilment of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) to protect our biodiversity, including the Odra River waters and natural resources that rely on them.

The lectures, field visits and expert discussions revealed that there are plenty of tools available to reduce risks and avoid critical situations, e.g.:

“We strongly believe that restoring ecosystems on a landscape scale is achievable when various institutions, businesses, organisations and individuals cooperate and share the same vision. We are excited to see the new collaborations that have emerged from the River University, bringing us closer to achieving this goal.”

– Ewa Leś and Peter Torkler, co-organizers of River University 2023.

The Oder River is not only an infamous example of what can happen when human pressures damage the environment, but it could also represent a good example of a holistic approach and joint transboundary improvements to make recovery possible [8] and to ensure the resilience of the river.

Participants of the River University 2023 during the field trip to the Międzyodrze area
Agnieszka Soboń / Rewilding Oder Delta

Text: Ewa Leś
Edit: Federica Pastore, Agnieszka Soboń, Peter Torkler

Further reading:

This article is a shared news item from Coalition Clean Baltic and Rewilding Oder Delta.

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