A few weeks ago, I did not make it to bed. Over two metres of water were cascading down the streets of my local village after the nearby river – the Hoëgne in Wallonia – burst its banks following terrible rainstorms.
My cellar was flooded, but living on relatively high ground, we were the lucky ones. The torrents of water devastated houses, schools and shops.
Many people I know have lost everything. And many people lost their lives in the nearby village of Pepinster which even today still looks like a post-war landscape.
It is not only Belgium which has suffered, of course. Waterways in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and other European countries all burst their banks following extreme rainfall this summer – scenes that are now being repeated in New York and New Jersey.
Rivers important for our survival
Rivers are vital to our survival and wellbeing. They are a source of water for nature and people, a home for rich and varied living species, and a major economic asset, as well as a location for leisure activities. However, the awful scenes many of us just experienced will not be a one-off. Scientists say that deadly rains and flooding have become much more likely due to climate change.
Clearly, governments are not doing enough to tackle the causes of climate change – which is why the upcoming Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow is so critical. Even the EU’s updated climate target of a net 55% emissions cut by 2030 is too low. Science shows a gross reduction of 65% on 1990 levels target is the bare minimum we need to keep temperature rise to 1.5°C.
But in addition to these crucial emissions cuts, we need to change the way our land and natural resources are managed. We must restore nature not only to absorb carbon from the air but to store water and act as buffers to protect people and communities. We need to help rivers and wetlands to function as they should – including how they store water and how they move sediments.
In practical terms, this means re-creating or restoring natural landscapes like floodplains – the flat areas which form over time near rivers – or wetlands which can take on excess water and delay runoff. Over time, these natural defences have been slowly reduced or erased, covered by drained farmland which speed up flows of water or by concrete in the form of roads, buildings, and houses.
The worst areas for this in Europe are the Tisza, Seine, Rhine and Meuse rivers, where nearly all the natural floodplain area has been lost. Many cities and governments have built dykes to attempt to contain the river. Yet as we have just seen, this is not a safe solution, and certainly not one for the long run.
A recent report WWF commissioned from Deltares, an independent Dutch research institute in the field of water and subsurface, deals with the problem. The report found that – when impacts on water quality, nutrient retention and flood risk reduction are taken into account – restoring rivers and their floodplains is the most cost-efficient solution – as well as being the best for nature, biodiversity and people.
The benefits of river restoration
For example, in the Lower Danube and Danube Delta, researchers showed, maintaining and repairing the current, damaged embankments is estimated to cost €572 million per year. But if floodplains are restored in the area – at a cost of €7 billion to restore 4,000 km2 of land – the yearly savings on flood protection measures compared to current embankment repairs would come to €230 million.
What’s more, in the first case – maintaining the embankments only – €3.3 billion more would need to be spent on additional measures due to increased climate change risks by 2100. This shrinks to €1.36 billion if the floodplains are restored. And restoring floodplains is likely to boost the local economy through tourism and create as many as 250,000 local short-term jobs.
Even when a river flows through a natural valley – like the Rhine, for example – the river basin it is in can still provide space for water run-off from its tributaries. Other elements like trees and natural vegetation and the type of soil play an important role in easing flooding.
The benefits of restoration are clear. And with climate impacts set to worsen, it is imperative that these restoration projects begin today.
The EU recovery fund – the €750 billion ‘Recovery and Resilience Facility’ – provides an excellent opportunity for this to happen. National governments should use their recovery funding to invest in a safer future for their citizens by financing activities which will help tackle the climate and nature crisis and withstand future weather disasters.
River restoration also needs to be enshrined in law. The EU is currently preparing a Nature Restoration Law, and this must include legally binding, ambitious restoration targets, in particular for floodplains, wetlands, and all types of ecosystems that contribute to retain and store water.
WWF is calling for a legally-binding target of at least 15% of land and freshwater (650,000 km2) and 15% of the sea (1,000,000 km2) to be restored by 2030 both at EU and Member State level.
Restoring rivers and freshwater ecosystems is a question of survival, but also presents huge opportunities in terms of addressing the climate and nature crises, and boosting the economy. Europe has the responsibility and political opportunity to make it happen, as well as the money to finance it. If it is done properly, the rewards will be huge for people and nature.