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Why freshwater ecosystem restoration makes economic sense

December 8, 2021
Floodplain restoration on the lower Danube river could bring significant ecological and economic benefits, according to a new report. Image: Garla Mare | MERLIN

Amidst calls to tackle the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis, Nature-based Solutions are emerging as a vital tool for contemporary environmental management. Nature-based Solutions (or NbS, as they’re commonly termed) are approaches which use natural systems or processes to help achieve both social and environmental goals.

A growing body of evidence shows that NbS – such as habitat restoration or pollution mitigation – can have positive effects for both biodiversity and local economies. However, there is the need to better quantify their economic benefits in order to encourage their wider uptake amongst environmental policy makers and managers.

The first MERLIN webinar will be held next week to discuss the economic benefits that NbS bring to freshwater ecosystem management. On Wednesday 15th December, Sien Kok from DELTARES and Sanja Pokrajac from the WWF Living European Rivers initiative will outline the findings of a recently published report on freshwater NbS.

Examining the outcomes of river restoration on the lower Danube and Elbe, the report states that NbS can deliver significant linked ecological and economic benefits. It states that floodplain restoration on the lower Danube has the potential to improve ecological quality, restore hydrological and morphological processes and increase water quality and biodiversity. At the same time, these restored environmental processes help reduce flood risk and support local tourism and fishing economies, Sien Kok and colleagues suggest.

The report authors undertook a cost-benefit analysis of NbS restoration on the lower Danube. They found that ‘business as usual’ management using dikes for flood protection would cost €572 million a year. By 2100, increased climate-change risks mean that this model of flood management would cost around €3.3 billion to maintain. In addition, the authors suggest that the Danube floodplains would remain largely agricultural, despite declining yields as a result of salinisation and aridification.

On the other hand, the report suggests that the large-scale restoration of 4000km2 of lower Danube floodplains would cost around €230 million a year to maintain, totalling €1.36 billion by 2100: less than half of the ‘business as usual’ model. Moreover, the authors state that floodplain restoration would likely stimulate economic diversification across tourism and fisheries in the basin.

The Elbe catchment has been heavily-modified through the construction of extensive embankments to control flooding and create space for agriculture. However, water quality is low in much of the catchment and there are increasingly severe flooding events. The report examines the value of large-scale floodplain restoration along the Elbe, suggesting that it could bring economic benefits of €2520 million to local economies. These benefits result from projected improvements to flood protection, water quality, biodiversity protection and greenhouse gas emission mitigation.

Broadly, the report suggests that ‘making space for rivers’ through such Nature-based Solutions offers sustainable and economically-beneficial means of tackling the effects of the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis in freshwater ecosystems.

The authors argue that such benefits align closely with the priorities of EU policies such as the Green Deal, climate change Adaptation Strategy and Biodiversity Strategy. The task, is to better understand and quantify these benefits in order to stimulate their wide-scale uptake in environmental policy and management.


MERLIN Webinar #1
Wednesday 15th December 2021, 1600 CET

Contact MERLIN to receive webinar access information:

This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

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