The Alps may seem like a paradise, but the environmental situation is extremely dire. Just one in ten rivers are healthy enough to maintain water supply and to cope with climate impacts according to a report by WWF. The study is the first ever to take a look at all the Alpine rivers.

The choked rivers of the Alps

Alpine river bank. Photo: Flickr

Alpine river bank. Photo: Flickr

Naturally, there are over 2600 km of rivers in the Alps; but out of these, only 340 kilometers remain ecologically intact, while the rest of 2300 are heavily modified or dried out. The environmental consequences are huge, as rivers are biodiversity hotspots and play a key role in maintaining the ecological services of an area.

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“Healthy rivers, streams, wetlands and floodplains provide a suite of ecosystem services including fresh water and flood protection,” said Christoph Litschauer, Head of WWF’s European Alpine Freshwater Program. “These systems are essential for human livelihood. Beyond basic services, we also have to look at healthy natural rivers as one of our best insurance policies against climate change.”

The problem is not just related to the Alps – 4 million people from eight countries rely on the Alpine rivers as water sources, either for drinking or for agriculture, fisheries, energy, jobs and recreation. The study, which was conducted by Vienna’s University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences also found that just 11 percent of the rivers are on their original valleys, the rest being redirected or used in hydroelectrical dams.

“Many planned hydro-dams are situated in protected areas like the Soca in Slovenia or on pristine rivers like the Isel in Austria. These counteract current protection efforts,” continued Litschauer. “Rivers are more than mere energy suppliers; they need to be seen for the complete natural services they provide.”

But it’s not just local issues affecting the rivers – climate change is making its presence felt as well. The temperature in the Alps has risen by 2°C within the last 200 years, far above the average global temperature increase of .85°C.

To make things even worse, following the catastrophic floods that hit Europe in the past few years, WWF highlights the need to strengthen the resilience of water ecosystems. They explain that local populations are unable to provide the necessary protection, and call on governments to protect and restore these rivers.

“Extreme weather events are increasingly likely and we must protect and strengthen the capacity of our ‘green infrastructure’ including living rivers and wetlands. The environment is changing and we must respond,” said Litschauer.

The WWF study also highlighted a no-go are for hydro power plants and highlights river stretches for future restoration projects. A study like this one is long overdue and shows the incredible amount of damage suffered by Alpine ecosystems. Even though the Alps still have unspoiled areas, the extent of the damage is surprisingly high, the study concludes.