Future challenges for sustainable water management in the Rhine catchment area

At the 15th Conference of Rhine Ministers on 28 October, the ministers set down a timetable for restoring the passages for migratory fish in the Rhine. In 2020, salmon should again be able to reach the tributaries of the Rhine in the Basel region. Other major decisions involve dealing with micropollutants, flood risk management and tackling the consequences of climate change.

Swiss Federal Councillor Doris Leuthard invited the Rhine Ministers and a representative of the European Union to meet in Basel during the 15th Rhine Ministers Conference in Basel to take stock of the activities carried out regarding the protection of the Rhine and to set the course for the future. In a joint statement, they also set down that the water quality and ecological situation of the Rhine had clearly improved over recent decades, although a lot of work is still needed to achieve the goal of “good condition” in all the waters in the Rhine catchment area.

The most important areas for action for the future have to do with micropollutants, fish passages, flood defences and adapting to climate changes.

Micropollutants (e.g. pharmaceuticals, aromatic substances, insecticides and hormones) present a new challenge. In current sewage treatment plants that work with conventional, mechanical-biological treatment processes, micropollutants are frequently not eliminated or only partially eliminated from wastewater. The ICPR has analysed the relevant groups of substances and their emission routes, and has designed a strategy which indicates the most efficient measures that can be taken to prevent and reduce the emission of these substances from urban and industrial wastewater. Given that this problem is not specific to the Rhine, initiatives also need to be taken at the European level. However, the ICPR will not be dropping this issue and will be examining the Rhine catchment area more closely.

In connection with the fish passages, André Weidenhaupt (chair of the ICPR) stressed that “the course for the free passage of fish in the Rhine system up until 2020 has been set, a real milestone for ICPR.” He added that in the Rhine catchment area and its tributaries that have been designated as programme waters for salmon and brown trout, including the Moselle, some 480 migration obstacles have already been removed. The Haringvliet sluices will be partially opened in 2018 so that fish can more easily enter the Rhine catchment area once again. In 2015, a fish passage will be operational at the barrage in Strasbourg and in that same year work will commence on constructing a fish passage at the dam in Gerstheim. Mr Weidenhaupt explained that the conference had now agreed on the next steps to be taken in restoring the fish passages between Gerstheim and Basel to ensure that salmon will once again be able to return to the tributaries of the Rhine in Switzerland in 2020. Furthermore, the decision was made to devote more attention to innovative technologies for solving the problems of downstream migration past obstacles in order to limit the loss of salmon and eels in turbines.

The extreme high water levels in the Elbe and Danube in June 2013 made the problem of high water, along the Rhine too, the focus of attention once again. The inventory drawn up by the ICPR regarding the implementation of the High Water Action Plan, showed that thanks to a broad spectrum of measures along the Rhine downstream from Basel since 2010, up to 229 million m³ of water can be stored in retention areas to lower peak discharges. Since 1998, over ten billion euros have been invested in flood prevention, flood defences and raising the flood awareness of the population so that people and goods can be as well protected as possible against damage.

However, the effects of increasingly clear climate changes will necessitate even more flood risk management activities. All stakeholders need to participate in this process which has to take place at every level (municipal, regional, national and international), The same applies to low water management that must be developed to stay ahead of the expected increase in periods of low water, which will result in problems for ecology, water quality and user functions (like shipping and the use of cooling water) especially if these periods occur in combination with high air and water temperatures.

The ministers’ conference was pleased to take note of the fact that the ICPR’s work and the successful cooperation on the protection of the Rhine and its catchment area was awarded the 1st European River Prize in September 2013.

The ICPR at a glance

The Rhine states – Switzerland, France, Germany and the Netherlands – work together with Luxembourg and the European Commission in the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine (ICPR) on the basis of an international treaty on the protection of the Rhine. The chair of the Commission (currently André Weidenhaupt of Luxembourg) and the ICPR consultation groups are supported by an internationally-staffed secretariat located in Koblenz (Germany). The secretariat also supports the countries in the Rhine catchment area that are implementing the EU Water Framework Directive (Directive 2000/60/EC) and the EU Directive on the Assessment and Management of Flood Risks (Directive 2007/60/EC). Within the framework of the implementation of these EU directives, the cross-border cooperation has been expanded to include Austria, Liechtenstein and Wallonia. The working languages of the ICPR are Dutch, German and French.

For more information on the ICPR, visit the Commission’s website.