How businesses can act to save Europe’s great rivers

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How businesses can act to save Europe’s great rivers

Many of the EU‘s major rivers are on the brink of disaster, threatening sustainable business and national economies. Much of the damage comes from businesses, but there is a lot they can do to preserve these natural resources. By Giles Crosse

The Alps act as water towers for 14 million people across eight EU countries. The rivers that drain these high mountains provide food, energy and jobs. Yet, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has warned that just one in 10 Alpine rivers can maintain its water supplies.

Rising demands from agriculture, hydropower and cooling water for electricity are asking for more than the rivers can give. “Decreasing water resources for hydropower generation may conflict with increasing demand for electricity for indoor cooling in summer,” says Christoph Lischauer, head of WWF’s European Alpine Freshwater Programme.

Lischauer argues that the business world is doing much of the damage and must take more responsibility for its water use. But WWF is doing a lot or help companies understand their obligations. For example, Coca-Cola is working with WWF in the Danube river basin. The firm is restoring river banks and flood plains. It is a good example of partnership between the corporate and campaigning worlds. “Combining the organizations’ strengths, brands and networks, it is possible to go beyond what each organization could achieve on its own,” Litschauer said.

Getting more multinationals to take responsibility for their huge water use could limit the damage. “Hydropower companies, for example, should cover the full costs of the impacts of their operations, such as river bed erosion. Before converting floodplains into land for housing, or agriculture, the costs of losing the natural water retention functions needs to be assessed and integrated into cost-benefit analyses.”

Polluter pays

Litschauer calls for better application of the polluter pays principle. A keystone of sustainability science, the idea is that companies are financially responsible for the care and repair of natural resources they exploit. The principles exists, but they are not applied enough.

The second key to sustainable management is ‘ecosystem services’. This concept values a river in the same way that the stock market values Tesco or WalMart. “Broadly defined, ‘ecosystem services’ are the benefits people derive from nature,”  Litschauer said. “Some are obvious, such as drinking water. Some are less obvious, and easier to take for granted, like water quality, or culture and heritage.”

WWF advocates integrated river management. This begins with conserving and restoring the springs, rivers, lakes and marshes that naturally manage water quality and quantity. Only by taking this holistic approach can solutions to global freshwater issues be found.

In truth, business imperatives and managing the environment share many parallels. A river is in essence a coolant supplier to an energy company. But corporates rarely value and nurture natural services in this way.

Climate change and the EU’s rivers

European rivers are also threatened by industrially driven global warming. The temperature in the Alps has risen by 2°C within the last 200 years, far above the average global temperature increase of 0.85°C. WWF says the rises have caused the major floods in Europe in the past few years.

These dangers make partnerships between the private and campaigning sectors critical. “Devastating damage caused by floods shows that technical flood protection measures are not enough to buffer the effects of climate change,” said  Litschauer.

His solution requires the restoration and protection of green infrastructure. Natural floodplains are nature‘s answer to flooding, enabling unusually high rainfall to be managed, but European agribusinesses have transformed natural retention plains into agricultural land. Loss of their soil structure and nutrient degradation has led to increased sedimentation in rivers, clogging them up and killing fish.

‘Hydropower companies, for example, should cover the full costs of the impacts of their operations, such as river bed erosion,’ Christoph Lischauer, WWF

“Degraded lands are less able to hold onto water, which can worsen flooding,” Litschauer said. “Protected areas are fragmented and disconnected, and insufficiently large or robust enough to safeguard ecosystem services in the face of climate change.”

Partnerships of protection

Ironically, strong business arguments can be applied to justify the careful management of rivers. First, freshwater biodiversity encourages the self-cleaning properties of lakes and rivers, keeping water treatment costs low. Second, when water is clean, birds and fish thrive. Their presence encourages nature tourism and recreational angling, which brings in revenue. Third, beautiful landscapes attract businesses and highly qualified staff into areas.

Coca-Cola’s work shows how successfuly the corporate world can get involved. A wider understanding of how nature and business are similar would help more companies value natural service providers better.

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Giles Crosse is a journalist with specialist interest in the developing world, corporate social responsibility, and technical solutions to environmental challenges. His career has taken him to exotic destinations, such as the Peruvian Amazon, and Shallow Waters in Cambodia. He is looking forward to an inclusive planet, where greener business, happier people and better managed resources co-exist.