Kopacki rit nature park, Croatia © David Strobel / WWF
Many see the protection of water only as a chemical protection of water quality, while forgetting the physical and biological characteristics of water, which are equally important. Only when all three characteristics are balanced, can we talk about the good condition of water. This way of thinking comes from the traditionalist and technically-oriented approach to "management" of water. Some 200-300 years ago rivers started to adapt to the needs of humans in agriculture, urbanization, construction, recreation, etc. Hundreds of years ago, cities were located on hills, away from the river, which is not the case anymore. People have moved closer to the rivers and thus begun to create pressure on them. This is why many of the rivers are on the border of their tolerance efficiency. All this has become very evident over the past fifteen years, with devastating floods, drought… some rivers are dried up, underground aquifers are contaminated. It is believed that in future the situation will be even worse...
Croatia has systematically controlled fresh water since 1876 when the "Society for the regulation of the river" was opened in Osijek. Since then, the river in Croatia has systematically changed and adapted to the needs of industry, navigation, construction, power generation, water supply and drainage. Many rivers and tributaries were turned into sewers for municipal and industrial water, and in the reservoir to produce electricity. Under the greatest influence in Croatia are major rivers like the Drava, Sava, Kupa, Cetina or Neretva that provide multiple benefits to the economy. But in recent years, the emergence of consumerism and rapid "development" mean that rivers are rapidly exploited, habitats are disappearing, biodiversity and natural features are reduced. The remains of the former floodplains of Sava only remind us how the system of the river Sava used to look, and what kind of services and opportunities it offered. Not only extremely high biodiversity, but also direct and indirect services - flood, felled timber, clean water, fertile soil, economically exploitable species, pleasant climate, the filling of underground aquifers, recreation, etc.
Wetlands are habitats of high biodiversity and in all EU countries, including Croatia, are recognized as part of the Natura 2000 network. For Croatia, which still, in spite of numerous changes and degradation, has species and habitats from annexes of the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive, we can say that almost all the rivers and streams are potential candidates for the Natura 2000 network. Currently designated areas of national ecological network, when Croatia becomes a member state, most of these rivers will become Natura 2000 sites. Although most people are quite proud of that fact, others are aware that this is a limiting factor for many activities, especially "management" of water and its commercial exploitation.
Today's modern society has become aware of the fact that rivers have their limits. They also have many ecological functions that, if ignored, cause deterioration in quality of life and increase in the prices of all services. We also realized that without an integrated approach, where the environmental and social functions of water have equal status with economic functions, there won’t be any sustainable development, or development in general. Unfortunately, current Croatian water management, especially in practice, fails to adopt the principles and objectives of integrated water management and to learn from the mistakes of the “west”. They still only plan and implement the technocratic approach; they plan to "arrange" the "disordered" rivers and streams. "Arrange" in this sense means a river that loses its natural dynamics of functions such as flood defence, the river that was controlled and geometrically correct which gets it by uniformed channel through which water flows uniformly. In such a river wildlife is disappearing, there are no habitats, conditions are unfavorable for most river species of plants and animals. The protection of all these areas under the National Ecological Network and Natura 2000 network this way is threatened.
In order to find a compromise between different needs, a very close and urgent cooperation between nature protection sector, environmental protection, forestry, agriculture, the economy in general and Water Management sector is needed. This would create the future conservation and use of water resources and aquatic ecosystems, where no one sector will have priority and where they will provide quality of life for people, for the willow tree and for the smallest bird.
Irma Popovic Dujmovic