Creation of new EU frontier destroying Europe's rivers

Environmental groups including WWF are calling for an immediate halt to river regulation and gravel excavation activities that are destroying the last-remaining natural stretches of the Drava and Mura rivers in Croatia.

Vienna, Austria, Oct. 1, 2003 -- Environmental groups including WWF are calling for an immediate halt to river regulation and gravel excavation activities that are destroying the last-remaining natural stretches of the Drava and Mura rivers in Croatia.

The untouched lower stretches of the Drava and Mura Rivers at the Slovenian-Croatian border - characterized by pristine floodplain forests, river islands, gravel banks, and side branches - are being replaced with a canal by the Croatian Water Authorities. The canal will form a new border between Slovenia and Croatia. The work threatens parts of the second-largest floodplain forest in the Danube Basin, as well as endangered species such as the white-tailed eagle, black stork, and otter.

"Croatia is systematically ruining a remarkable river corridor of European importance in this region and Slovenia is tolerating the territorial encroachment the new border represents," says David Reeder, WWF International's Drava Coordinator. "This is being carried out without an Environmental Impact Assessment, breaches several international agreements, and violates EU environmental law."

"For more then ten years, the preservation of the Drava and Mura corridor - which runs from Austria through Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary down to the Danube River in Serbia - has been prepared by experts, local people and politicians," argues Dr Martin Schneider-Jacoby from Euronatur. "This unique riverine lifeline should be developed as a special tourist attraction for the border region between the five countries, combining thermal spas, protected areas, and vineyards, and attractive bicycle trails instead of being used as a gravel pit for a very short time."

In contrast to the destruction in Croatia, the upstream stretches of the Drava and Mura Rivers in Austria are currently undergoing ambitious restoration, at a cost of some 12 million Euros including EU support, to create a natural river ecosystem. Slovenia has also received international assistance to develop restoration projects for the Mura River.

"The river is being protected in one place and destroyed in another - it makes no sense," says Arno Mohl of WWF-Austria. "In Austria we are restoring the river Drava and Mura and in Croatia they are readily destroying what we are paying so much to get back. Perfectly good alternatives exist which are not so environmentally damaging: they should obviously be considered, for the good of the country and the future of the river and the people who live along it."

Slovenia's accession to the EU requires the country to make agreements with Croatia on the border issue. The solution appears to be that the old border along both rivers is replaced, after an exchange of territories, by a new boundary along the middle of the newly canalised rivers. Effectively this will be the new external frontier of the enlarged EU.

"This border solution does not consider the preservation of this unique environment; moreover it breaches international environmental agreements signed by both countries. It also violates EU environmental laws, such as the Water Framework Directive and the Birds and Habitats Directives," says Irma Popovic of Green Action Croatia.

"This only testifies to the strength of the water lobby and their attitude towards nature conservation, in both Slovenia and Croatia. The historical border is being sacrificed for the sake of a small yet powerful interest group," says Borut Stumberger of DOPPS-Birdlife Slovenia. "In the near future our two countries could be separated by an artificial canal, instead of a protected green corridor which would achieve a peaceful and long-term co-existence for us. This is why we are pleading that the historical borders be retained."

These works constitute the biggest impact on the ecosystem of the Drava and Mura since the political changes at the beginning of the 1990s.

"These works are being carried out because of outdated water management practices, totally at odds with the best practice now being followed in Europe - and also because of economic incentives that persist in Croatia," says Helena Hecimovic, President of the Drava League in Croatia. "The 5 million cubic metres of gravel are being taken out of the natural riverbed of the Drava to be used for the construction of national highways. For the water lobby in Croatia it's a hugely profitable enterprise."

WWF, Euronatur, and national organizations such as the Drava League and Green Action in Croatia and DOPPS-Birdlife Slovenia, are calling for an immediate halt to the destruction of Europe's natural heritage in Croatia; for the protection of the Drava-Mura 'Lifeline' in the long term; and peaceful co-existence between Croatia and Slovenia across the historical border.

Source: WWF

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