The spring fed falls and clear waters of the Una are part of the Una National Park in Bosnia and Herzegovina, founded in 2006.
The Una River. The spring fed falls and clear waters of the Una are part of the Una National Park in Bosnia and Herzegovina, founded in 2006. © Ken Geiger/TNC

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The time has come to change the way we protect our rivers

The Nature Conservancy this week co-hosted the first International Conference on River Protection in Southeast Europe. Convened in partnership with WWF Adria, this landmark meeting brought together government representatives, NGO peers and experts from across the region, the European Union and the United States to share experiences and create a platform to advocate for long-term river protection measures in the Balkans.

Faced with the growing effects of climate change, it is crucial to preserve freshwater ecosystems, particularly free-flowing rivers. Healthy rivers not only serve as a source of drinking water but also support the entire living world that surrounds them. They regulate air temperature, purify water, minimize floods and are a source of nutrients without which life in our ocean would not be possible. Their contribution to our own well-being and health is immeasurable, and we are all aware of the natural, cultural, historical, spiritual and recreational values rivers provide. More than 60 percent of European rivers are in bad health, and the Balkans region is a sanctuary for the majority of the continent's last remaining free-flowing rivers. 

However, in the last 10 years, there has been a systemic pressure on the rivers of Southeast Europe ranging from many unplanned small hydropower plants and extraction of sediment, as well as pollution caused by municipal and industrial wastewater and solid waste.

Therefore, The Nature Conservancy and WWF Adria have launched an initiative to review the conditions for implementing durable river protection mechanisms in Southeast Europe, modelled on legislation used in some European countries and the United States.

"Having recognised the need to protect our region’s incredible water wealth from unsustainable exploitation and systematic destruction, we have gathered in Podgorica to explore the possibilities and test our countries' readiness to take decisive steps to protect the rivers and secure a future where there is a place for both nature and people," said Milija Čabarkapa of WWF Adria.

The decision to organize the conference in Podgorica was not accidental. At the beginning of the year, the municipalities of Podgorica and Danilovgrad launched an initiative to protect the lower course of the Zeta River. Shortly thereafter, WWF Adria, in collaboration with the Ozon Ecological Association and with the support of The Nature Conservancy, launched an initiative for the protection of the river’s upper course. This is an example of good practice that is based on cooperation and mutual support, and it is now up to decision makers in Montenegro to recognize the importance of protecting rivers and take concrete implementation actions.

"The initiatives to protect the Zeta show the need for cooperation between the non-governmental sector and local authorities in order to achieve common goals. Protecting the Zeta River is of national importance and can be an example of good practice that can be successfully applied in other countries in the region," added Čabarkapa.

This week's conference is one of the first steps in establishing a common platform for the exchange of experiences and examples of good practice, but also to get a better understanding of the current situation and needs of individual countries in the region.

"Today, Montenegro has the opportunity to become a leader in the region when it comes to protecting rivers and establishing durable protection mechanisms. There are already significant legal measures in place in Montenegro that should ensure the protection of rivers, but it is time for them to be fully implemented, especially in protected areas. The best example is the Cijevna River, which received the status of a protected area, but a governing body to implement the existing legal regulations has not yet been established," said Dragana Mileusnić, The Nature Conservancy's Southeastern Europe Program Manager. "We hope that there is a strong political will to spread the issue of river protection beyond the borders of Montenegro, because the specific messages we will send through this conference can serve as an example to other countries in the region." 

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.