Current and future threats to Alpine rivers

The Alps are often described as the ‘Water Tower’ of Europe, because they provide around 40% of Europe’s freshwater. However, climate change affects the Alps, like all of nature. In the last 100 years the Alpine region has experienced temperature increases of 1,48°C – this is twice the global average. The rising temperatures result in loosening of the ground and rocks. In return, we experience more and more devastating rock slides in the alpine region.

Please also read: Risk of avalanches is increasing

Water conflicts in the Alps

The mountains are gradually changing how they store and distribute water. For example, earlier snowmelt and reduced summer precipitation caused by climate overheating, leads to a reduction in river flow in summer. This is also the time when the demand for water is at its highest. We can thus expect conflicts over water use in the Alps in the future. Especially agriculture demands a large quantity of the water, particularly in regions such as Northern Italy. Furthermore, ski areas have a high water demand to produce artificial snow. This will also be an issue in areas like Tyrol very soon. Leopold Füreder from the insitute of ecology of the University of Innsbruck says:

“The state of Tyrol uses as much water for artificial snow production in one season as four Tyrolean cities need in a whole year.”

Furthermore, this water outtake and use happens during a sensitive periode of the year. This artificial cycle can significantly influence and change the local water cycle, which can effect the growing patterns of plants. The future of European wild rivers is thus under pressure. In 2018, experts and scientists gathered in the European River Summit to discuss the international issues.

Solutions are needed

Protecting watercourses in the Alps, Europe, and across the globe is vitally important. They are an important ecosystem for wildlife and plants, but also for humans. We rely on a water supply for drinking, agriculture, manufacturing, transport and energy. Although current precipitation models are relatively reliable, it is not possible yet to predict what is going to happen based on these models outputs. Consequently, it is necessary to start to work on solutions for water shortage now, Füreder says.

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EWS – Bela WILDRIver

WILDRivers protect healthy river ecosystems in Europe

The European Wilderness Network categorises a specific category of Wilderness for the protection of river ecosystems in Europe – called WILDRivers. WILDRivers represent well-preserved and healthy ecosystems and have no or minimal influence by humans. The Belá WILDRiver is such a pristine river. Füreder, who specialises in stream ecosystems in Alpine regions, stated that “80 percent of the watercourses are very much changed,” and that “they are far from a good ecological status.” In many rivers, one of the biggest threats are dams. Old dams and construction of new hydropower dams potentially threaten to change riverine ecosystems, like in the Blue Heart of Europe and countries like Romania.

The European Wilderness Society team is working hard to designate and protect rivers across Europe. In the recent months we have visited potential WILDRivers in several countries, like the Tagliamento in Italy.  Read here about our recent quick-audit of Thaya River in Austrian and Czech national parks of Thayatal and Podyjí. The people in Europe need to act now to protect our remaining Wilderness, rivers and environment, before climate change leads to water conflicts, affecting the living conditions for all dependent species surrounding it.

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Join more 100+ forest experts demanding a radical change in German forestry management.

Sign the Open Letter to the German Federal Minister of Forestry and Agriculture

Open Letter to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Federal Ministry of
Food and Agriculture
Minister Julia Klöckner
11055 Berlin

Dear Minister Klöckner,

The current situation of the forest in Germany is worrying. It is a forest crisis not only driven by climate change. The current crisis management of the forestry industry is backward-looking and harmful to the forest. The declaration announced at the meeting of ministers in Moritzburg can be described as a `Moritzburg declaration of bankruptcy´. We call on the state forestry industry to, instead of expensive rushed actions, finally carry out an expert analysis of its own work and to involve all stakeholders in this process. What is called for is a consistent departure from plantation forestry and a radical shift towards a management that treats the forest as an ecosystem and no longer as a wood factory.

On 1stAugust 2019, five forestry ministers of CDU and CSU-led states adopted a so-called “master plan” for the forest in Germany, which was affected by heat, bark beetles, fire and drought. As of 2020, the federal government is to make 800 million euros available as a reaction to climate change. This money is to be used to repair the damage caused, reforest the damaged areas and carry out `climate-adapted´ forest conversion – including the use of non-native tree species that have not yet been cultivated in the forest. Research should therefore focus on on tree species suitability and forest plant breeding in the future – keyword: `Climate-adapted forest of the future 2100´.

Remarkably, the damage caused primarily by the extreme drought of 2018 is attributed solely to climate change. Climate change is meeting a forest that is systemically ill due to the planting of non-native tree species, species poverty, monocultures, uniform structure, average low age, mechanical soil compaction, drainage etc. A healthy, resistant forest would look differently! The master plan emphasizes: sustainable, multifunctional and `active´ forest management remains indispensable – and thereby means that its unnatural state cannot be changed. Reference is made to the `carbon storage and substitution effects´ of wood products. The use of wood, e.g. in the construction industry, should be increased and thus the demand for wood should be further fueled – while knowing that the forest in Germany already cannot meet this demand. In fact, forest owners are suffering from poor timber prices due to an oversupply of trunk wood on the world market.

All these demands make clear: the current forestry strategy, which has been practiced for decades, should not change in principle. The concept is simple: cut down trees – plant trees. At best, the `design´ of the future artificial forests consisting of perfectly calculated tree species mixtures, that are believed to survive climate change without damages, can be changed. In all seriousness, the intention is to continue selling the public a so-called `future strategy´ to save the forest. This strategy seamlessly follows the model of a wood factory, that is met with general rejection and must be regarded as a failure in view of the coniferous plantations that are currently collapsing on a large scale. An essential part of the forests that have currently died is exactly the part that was reestablished in 1947 as coniferous monocultures on a much larger area than today. There is only one difference to the situation at the time: considerable amounts of money are to be made available from taxes for forest owners this time.

Climate change is progressing, and this, without a doubt, has massive impacts on all terrestrial ecosystems, including forests. To pretend that the last two years of drought alone caused the disaster is too cheap. On closer inspection, the disaster is also the result of decades of a forestry focused on conifers – in a country that was once naturally dominated by mixed deciduous forests. People do not like to admit that for more than 200 years they have relied on the wrong species of commercial tree (spruce) and have also created artificial, ecologically highly unstable and thus high-risk forest ecosystems. A whole branch of business has become dependent on coniferous wood. And now the German coniferous timber industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

It would only have been honest and also a sign of political greatness if you and the forestry ministers in Moritzburg had declared: Yes, our forestry industry has made mistakes in the past, and yes, we are ready for a relentless analysis that takes into account not only purely silvicultural, but also forest-ecological aspects. Instead, you have confined yourselves to pre-stamped excuses that are already familiar to everyone and that lack any self-critical reflection.

Clear is: We finally need resting periods for the forest in Germany, which has been exploited for centuries. We need a new, ecologically oriented concept for future forest – not a hectic `forest conversion´, but simply forest development closer towards nature. This gives the forest as an ecosystem the necessary leeway to self-regulate and react to the emerging environmental changes. We need a systemic forest management that is no less profitable than the present one, but must be substantially more stable and resistant to foreseeable environmental changes. The aid for forest owners that all citizens are now required to pay through their taxes is only politically justified in the interest of common good, if the forests of the future that are being promoted by it, do not end up in the next disaster, some of which is produced by the forest management itself.

That is why the signatories request from the the Federal Government, and in particular you, Mrs Klöckner, a master plan worthy of the name:

On disaster areas (mainly in public forests!) reestablishment through natural forest development (ecological succession), among other things with pioneer tree species, is to be brought about. In private forests, ecological succession for reestablishment must be purposefully promoted. Larger bare areas should be planted with a maximum of 400 to 600 large plants of native species per hectare in order to permit ecological succession parallelly.
To promote ecological succession, the areas should no longer be completely and mechanically cleared; as much wood as possible should be left in the stand (to promote optimum soil and germ bed formation, soil moisture storage and natural protection against browsing). In private forests, the abandonment of use in disaster areas should be specifically promoted for ecological reasons and in order to relieve the burden on the timber market.

Regarding the promotion of reestablishment plantings in private forests: priority for native tree species (of regional origin); choose wide planting distances in order to leave enough space for the development of pioneer species. For the forests of the future: Minimize thinning (low-input principle), build up stocks through targeted development towards old thick trees, protect the inner forest climate / promote self-cooling function (should have highest priority due to rapidly progressing climate change!), prohibit heavy machinery, refrain from further road construction and expansion, permit and promote natural self-regulatory development processes in the cultivated forest and on (larger) separate areas in the sense of an compound system; drastically reduce the density of ungulate game (reform of hunting laws).

Like in the field of organic agriculture, which has been established since the 1980s, the crisis of our forests should be the reason today to transform at least two existing forestry-related universities. They should be turned into universities for interdisciplinary forest ecosystem management. This is a contribution not only to the further development of forestry science and silviculture in Germany, but also of global importance! The goal must be to produce wood through largely natural forest production and to start with it here in Germany, the birthplace of forestry.


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