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Mainstreaming freshwater restoration in Europe through MERLIN

October 1, 2021
Beaver reintroductions are restoring natural processes to the Torringen area of Sweden. Image: MERLIN

Europe’s environments are in an alarming state. Despite decades of environmental action and policy, human activities continue to alter, degrade and destroy ecosystems across the continent. All of this comes with a cost, not only to the rich biodiversity European ecosystems support, but also to the human communities who rely on nature for food, water, jobs and well-being.

As a result, there is a pressing need for damaged ecosystems to be brought back to life through ecological restoration across Europe. Freshwaters are key to such transformative change. As this blog has documented, freshwaters are vital ‘life support systems’ for both humans and wildlife alike.

Rivers, lakes, peatlands and wetlands create a host of benefits for people: drinking water, flood protection, water filtration, carbon storage, food supplies, tourism, and mental well-being, amongst numerous others. However, when freshwater habitats are degraded and destroyed, their ability to provide such benefits to people is impaired.

This was seen recently in the flood disasters across Germany and Belgium, where decades of heavy river engineering coupled with extreme rainfall as a result of climate change created the conditions for catastrophic flooding. These floods are stark evidence of how the ongoing impacts of climate change are being intensified by the degradation of natural freshwater habitats.

Wildflowers bloom on the banks of the Emscher River, Germany. Image: MERLIN

MERLIN: supporting innovative freshwater restoration in Europe

But what can we do about the situation? MERLIN, a major new EU-funded project, launched today, has ambitious goals to kick-start the restoration of Europe’s freshwater environments over the coming years.

The MERLIN project involves 44 partners from across Europe, including universities, research institutes, nature conservation organisations, and stakeholders from business, government, and municipalities. One of four flagship restoration projects in the EU Green Deal, the project will invest €10 million into restoring rivers, lakes, peatlands and wetlands across the continent.

“Water bodies and their floodplains need more space – they have to be renaturalised,” says MERLIN co-ordinator Prof. Daniel Hering from the University of Duisburg-Essen (UDE), Germany. “One focus is on cooperation with industries that can benefit from restoration, for example agriculture, drinking water production and insurance companies,” Prof. Hering outlines.

MERLIN will support 17 ongoing freshwater restoration projects across Europe. These include the restoration of heavily modified rivers, such as the Emscher catchment in Germany; wetland restoration, such as in Kampinos, Poland; the reconnection of natural floodplains, such as on the Danube River across Austria and Hungary; and dam removal, such as on the Oulujoki Iijoki catchments in Finland.

The location of the 17 MERLIN restoration case studies across Europe. Image: MERLIN

Nature-based Solutions bring benefits to humans and ecosystems

A key theme across all the case studies is that freshwater restoration can bring about multiple benefits, both for humans and ecosystems. The MERLIN project seeks to learn from these sites to develop best practice approaches for innovative environmental restoration management. It will also examine how these approaches can be scaled-up across catchments and the continent.

More broadly, the project aims to use evidence from these sites to place freshwater restoration at the heart of contemporary environmental policy and management aiming for sustainable, low-carbon futures. The benefits of freshwater restoration will be quantified, both ecologically and economically, as a means of strengthening arguments for its implementation.

Nature-based Solutions are an important part of the tool-kit for achieving this goal. Nature-based Solutions are actions to manage and restore ecosystems which simultaneously provide human well-being and biodiversity benefits. For example, reconnecting rivers to their floodplains has the potential to both restore lost habitats, and provide enhanced natural flood protections.

“Many social groups benefit from restoration, and it requires the contribution of many actors,” says MERLIN co-ordinator Dr. Sebastian Birk of the UDE Aquatic Ecology Working Group. “Restoration contributes to improving residential environments and creates local recreation areas,” Dr. Birk continues.

The River Forth, Scotland flowing through heavily modified agricultural landscapes. Image: MERLIN

Placing freshwater restoration at the heart of European environmental policy and management

MERLIN will bring together new communities of scientists, policy makers, conservationists, environmental managers and the public across Europe to develop Nature-based Solutions for contemporary freshwater restoration. Through training, knowledge-sharing and engagement, these results will be shared extensively with new networks of restoration practice across the continent.

In so doing, the project will support the new EU Green Deal, which states that climate change and environmental degradation present a stark, existential threat, both to Europe and globally. Over the coming years and decades, the Green Deal aims to transform the EU into an economy with no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050, and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use. MERLIN’s focus on freshwater restoration will support such goals, particularly those around zero pollution, ecological recovery and circular economies.

“MERLIN is an ambitious project which will demonstrate the importance of transformative freshwater restoration for people and biodiversity across Europe,” says Dr. Birk. “This is the beginning of a positive and productive plan to bring freshwater habitats across the continent back to life, sparking a host of benefits for all our lives,” Dr. Birk states.


MERLIN – Mainstreaming Ecological Restoration of freshwater-related ecosystems in a Landscape context: INnovation, upscaling and transformation

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