2013 IRF European Riverprize Finalists

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The Orbigo River is located within the Duero Basin, a trans-national shared between Spain and Portugal. Here, water management strategies have evolved historically from a view of the hydrologic cycle as a resource to a more integrated and focused approach encompassing ecological functioning. This approach fits under the European Union legislation on water, particularly the Water Framework Directive and Floods Directive. From this context, the National Strategy for River Restoration emerged in two thousand and six with the ultimate goal to improve the ecological status of all Spanish water courses. In order to develop this Strategy, the Ministry asked its agencies for demonstrative actions of change in the management of river systems, promoting integration with land use following sustainability criteria, while encouraging engagement and civil participation, and technical training in this new approach. Órbigo River Restoration Project was designed for this purpose: it is an example of integration of both water management and land use policies. It covers a variety of actions including recovering “room for the river”, improving lateral connectivity and the recovery of secondary channels and other para-river structures which reduced ecological functioning because of channelization. The integrated approach ensures that public participation processes, education and training and a volunteering program underpin the implementation of the project. 




Following half a century of river degradation and a nineteen eight-six chemical accident near Basel resulting in hundreds of kilometres of river being polluted and the mass death of fish, eels and other aquatic organisms, those responsible for the River Rhine realised that a fundamental shift in thinking was required for the management of this major transnational river.


Following investments by the states, municipalities and industry, more than ninety-six per cent of the fifty-eight million inhabitants of the Rhine catchment are today connected to urban wastewater treatment plants and many industrial sites now dispose of waste via modern treatment plants. As a result, water quality has improved considerably and oxygen levels are back to normal. The chemical status of most groundwater bodies is good; and inventories show that fish species composition in the Rhine is almost complete, with sixty-seven fish species being detected. All historically identified species except for one have returned.


In addition to key river health improvements, the main aims of the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine include harmony in water use and environmental objectives under the European Union Water Framework, flood prevention, adaption to climate change, sustainable development, human health and cultural heritage.




Until one hundred and forty years ago, the Upper Drau - or Drava - ruled the wetlands with its annual floods. With the building of the rail road line through the Upper Drau Valley in about eighteen seventy, regulatory procedures set the river’s course in order to reduce flood danger, intensive agricultural use and to expand settlement areas. The wetlands valley floor shrank. In spite of these developments, the Upper Drau still accommodated numerous natural resources, such as the last free-flowing, undammed stretch of the River Drau and the largest grey alder riparian forest in Austria.


After the one hundred-year floods in nineteen sixty-five and sixty-six, a new problem arose: severe river bed erosion in the Drau. Groundwater levels sank, agriculture and the stability of the bank protection structures also suffered. At the beginning of the nineteen nineties, the water management section of the regional government, hydraulic engineers and environmentalists recognised their common interests about the Upper Drau. This led to an intensive collaboration, where both water management as well as nature conservation experts worked together. As early as nineteen ninety-three, on the basis of a water management concept, the first rehabilitation measures began in the form of river widening. Now, about twenty five per cent of the sixty-eight kilometre long river section from Oberdrauburg to Paternion in the district of Spittal (Carinthia, Austria) has been restored. This collaboration and on-ground works have culminated in the River Drau, together with its riparian zone being declared a European Protected Area in two thousand and eleven.




The Mura-Drava-Danube River corridor hosts highly valuable natural and cultural landscapes in all five countries, with long river sections forming the state borders, in the past known as “the Iron Curtain”. Despite numerous, unsustainable human practices, this stunning river landscape has kept an amazing biological diversity with rare natural habitat dynamics.


For many local people, the intact river and floodplains are vital for their livelihoods, sustaining, forestry, agriculture, recreation and tourism as well as clean water for drinking. The rivers are part of their rich multi-ethnic cultural heritage. Still, the corridor’s distinctive natural values are at risk. Since 1993, NGOs have been campaigning to protect the unique landscape in a Transboundary Biosphere Reserve or TBR. Gradually, public administrations and NGOs cooperated to achieve jointly the implementation of the TBR. Conflicting management practices such as regulating the natural river courses, extracting sediments and building new hydrodams are threatening the TBR’s ecological integrity.


The TBR vision constitutes an alternative economic concept, promoting eco-tourism and traditional farming. Continued public information provided by NGOs and the European Union accession requirements motivated all five countries along the river to set up various protected areas. This conservation commitment reduced and then stopped river-deteriorating interests. This transnational cooperation has taken an integrated approach to river restoration and management and achieved impressive on-ground results.


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