Danube Watch 1/2017 - Presidency 2017: European Union – Finding solutions together

Presidency 2017:
European Union – Finding solutions together

The European Union has taken over the ICPDR Presidency for the year, and taken up the challenge
of meeting both environmental and economic goals through better integration of differing water users.

In 1991, Peter Gammeltoft played a key role in setting up an interim Danube Task Force, the precursor of the ICPDR. Today, the former Head of Unit for Water and Marine Environment at the Directorate-General Environment of the European Commission – and ICPDR President for 2017 – is focusing on meeting the goals of the region through a closer cooperation than ever before.

Danube Watch: You helped lay the cornerstone of the ICPDR back in 1991 – How does it feel to be back after so many years?

It is great to see how the foundations laid in 1991 are now supporting a solid structure of cooperation. Before 1991 there was no framework for water and environmental management in the Danube Basin and I remember requests coming in daily from Danube riparian States with conflicting transboundary issues asking for intervention by the European Commission. The subsequent establishment of an interim secretariat, the drawing up of a Convention and its entry into force in 1998 created a coherent institutional framework and cooperation across national borders on all important water related issues in the basin, catalysing a cooperation which – to the benefit of all – has overcome traditional historical or political differences between the countries in the basin.

Danube Watch: You have said, “Agriculture is a big mountain to climb”; why make it one of the main priorities of your Presidency?

Agriculture and land-use practices and development have had and will increasingly have important impacts on pollution with nutrients and pesticides, on flood risks and on biodiversity in the basin if no measures are taken to control their impacts. But agriculture is also a potential victim of water scarcity and droughts, which will become more of an issue with continued economic development and climate change, so it is important to find solutions that will work for both the river and agriculture. Therefore, we need to intensify the dialogue between management of water and of other important sectors such as agriculture, energy and industry.

We have many examples of this cooperation already. For the transport sector we have the Joint Statement on Inland Navigation and Environmental Sustainability in the Danube River Basin, agreed with Danube Commission and the Sava Commission, with a joint transport and environment expert team – METEET – to advise us. For the energy sector we have the Guiding Principles on Sustainable Hydropower Development in the Danube Basin, which are now in the process of implementation by the national authorities. The EU ICPDR Presidency has therefore identified agriculture as one of its three cross-cutting priorities. We will promote an integrated approach to water management and agriculture and provide input from the EU to the ongoing development of an ICPDR guidance document on sustainable agriculture. This input will draw on ongoing and planned discussions between those responsible in the European Commission and the EU Member States for water and agricultural policies to improve the coherence of approaches, including discussions to follow up on the water related commitments in the G20 Agriculture Ministers’ Action Plan 2017.

This will also take into consideration one of the other cross-cutting priorities of the EU ICPDR Presidency: better coordination of EU funding mechanisms for ICPDR countries, EU Member States and non-Member States alike. This means looking at synergies with funds under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, Regional Policy, Accession Policy and Eastern Neighbourhood Policy, and of regional strategies such as the EU Strategy for the Danube Region.

Danube Watch: Do you see a way to make sturgeons more visible on a global level?

The six Danube sturgeon species are all part of the biological heritage and diversity of the Danube Basin. Sadly, the conservation status of all these species is decreasing and five are on the 'red list' of the International Union for Nature Conservation of species under threat – one species is already extinct in the basin, while four others are 'critically endangered' and one is 'vulnerable'.

There are several factors impeding sturgeon conservation: poaching/overfishing, pollution, changes in river flow regimes and physical barriers to migration of the sturgeons. A concerted effort is therefore necessary if we want to ensure a future for our flagship species. And I believe that this will be necessary to attain the target of Good ecological status of the EU’s Water Framework Directive in 2027 at the latest.

It is clearly linked to some of the Aichi targets for 2020 under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Although freshwater biodiversity in river systems is by definition local or regional, I believe that this and similar issues in other parts of the world are relevant for the CBD. Ignoring such issues will not help achieve the Aichi targets by 2020, which is – figuratively speaking – tomorrow. As the Danube is the largest EU river basin, I believe this is a wider European issue that requires concerted action between the countries concerned.

As President of the ICPDR I believe that we need to start thinking now about a coherent set of actions to improve the conservation status of the sturgeon in the Danube Basin. We appreciate the tireless effort and activities of the Danube Sturgeon Task Force in this respect. The ICPDR is currently looking at the feasibility of re-establishing sturgeon migration across the Iron Gates barriers, but more is definitely needed if we are to turn our ambitions into reality.

Danube Watch: How does the ICPDR’s work fit in with the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030?

The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 were adopted last year and the ICPDR and its contracting parties are therefore all bound by them and have to work for their implementation. Importantly, the adoption underlines the indivisibility of the SDGs and that win-win solutions must be identified to implement them – in plain language this means that sacrificing one goal to attain another goal is not an acceptable way forward. In fact, if you look at the preparatory work underpinning the SDGs you will find that some goals cannot be attained without attaining all the others.

The lesson here is that we must stop talking about choosing between economic goals and the environmental quality goals of the convention. We need to find ways of doing it all. I think this confirms that we are right in putting integration and the financing of improved policy integration at the top of the ICPDR’s agenda, and that in the light of SDG targets on water-related ecosystems, we need urgently to consider the measures needed to restore the Danube sturgeon populations.

We all look to water management to contribute to the provision of good quality drinking water, water for agriculture and industry, water for nature, good quality water for tourism and leisure purposes, and, last but not least, water to conserve biodiversity. We also need it to reduce water related risks, whether flood risk or water scarcity, or other risks arising from economic and demographic developments and climate change. In short, water management brings a key contribution to social and economic development and to securing jobs and welfare. If we don’t address the water management challenges, we risk losing welfare and jobs.

Hélène Masliah-Gilkarov is the Technical Expert for Public Participation and Communication in the ICPDR Secretariat, and the Executive Editor of Danube Watch.

Next: Danube Watch 1/2017 - A common bond for a common future