River Rhine gets broader protected status

New convention aims for sustainable development for the river, surrounding habitats

The River Rhine is to enjoy more comprehensive protection under a new international convention signed by five countries in Berne, Switzerland, yesterday. The third international convention on the protection of the Rhine aims to achieve sustainable development in the entire river system, whereas previous versions of the convention signed in 1963 and 1976 were limited to controlling water pollution.

The existing convention has proved "perhaps the most impressive environmental achievement in the world," according to Othmar Bühler of the Swiss foreign ministry. But parties to the convention now believed that a more wide-ranging approach was needed, including measures on flood management and habitat protection in the alluvial zone around the river's banks. Representatives of Switzerland, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed the new convention yesterday.

At the most recent ministerial-level meeting of the international commission that administers the convention, signatories acknowledged that the river needed more "room to flood" (ENDS Daily 22 January 1998). The redrafting of the convention was given further impetus when areas of Germany and the Netherlands bordering the Rhine suffered major floods last autumn. The convention now seeks to re-establish "as far as possible" the natural course of the river.

To this end, said Mr Bühler, the commission had been given much more power to be "strict" with the five states over implementation of its decisions and recommendations. The convention also formally extends observer status to environmental groups for the first time and incorporates the precautionary principle in its text.

One of the commission's aims is to reintroduce salmon as far upriver as Basle in Switzerland by 2000. The species disappeared in the 1950s, though water quality improvements have led to a comeback. Salmon ladders are being built to allow it to progress past industrial installations which dam the river at various points, and so far the species has reached the French region of Alsace.

Follow Up:
International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine, tel: +49 261 12495; Swiss environment ministry, tel: +41 31 322 70 54.

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