The natural mosaic of the Maas/Meuse River

15 June 2023 - // Features

The Maasvallei River Park restoration project has succeeded in combining the renewal of biodiversity with boosting the local economy.

Nature is not a static picture. It is never a perfect image with sharp definitions between habitats that are more typical of human geometry. Beautiful and wild nature is more like a patchwork in which the different elements coexist and reinforce each other.

More than 20 organizations came together to let nature thrive in what is called the RivierPark Maasvallei. They managed to combine a river restoration project with local economic development in the river Maas/Meuse, acting as a natural border between Belgium and The Netherlands, resulting in an impressive natural mosaic.

Rivers are essential in the hydrological cycle, as natural conduits, barriers, filters, and sinks for energy, materials, and organisms. The lives of many plants and animal species rely entirely on rivers. They are also an integral part of sustainable water management and humans need them as a freshwater supply source, and for economic activities such as agriculture, transport, food and hydropower.

Controlled camping on the site is allowed as part of the sustainable recreation tourism. Photo: Belén Gutiérrez Carmona / REVOLVE.

According to the Barrier Atlas developed by the Horizon 2020 project Adaptive Management of Barriers in European Rivers (AMBER), there are over half a million recorded barriers in Europe’s rivers, making it the most fragmented river landscape in the world. However, through field validation, researchers calculate that the actual number could be over 1 million. These man-made barriers (dams, weirs, sluices, culverts, fords, and ramps) fragment and degrade rivers, which are no longer able to provide quality water fit for purpose or store or transport flood waters. This results in river habitat decline, pollution, changes in flow regulation, and sediment composition.

Restoration is essential to allow the correct functioning of degraded river systems. Apart from recovering ecosystem services linked to essential human and economic activities, restoration mitigates climate change through flood protection, water retention and prevention of wildfires and it helps to reverse biodiversity loss.

Restoration protects against floods, retains water and prevents wildfires.

Maas/Meuse River dynamics 

Until the mid-20th century, the Maas/Meuse was a river used for agriculture, but after the Second World War, the need for materials triggered the conversion of this area into a coal region dedicated to gravel extraction until the 1990s. After decades of mining and post-industrial decline, nature was severely degraded, as was made evident in two extreme flooding events that happened in 1993 and 1995. Water management plans in Belgium and The Netherlands got together and several NGOs, including Natuurpunt, Limburgs Landscape, and ARK Rewilding, turned old gravel mining areas into nature and connected them with the river ecosystem.

Luckily, it is a rain river that can vary from 10 cubic meters per second during the dry season to 3,000 cubic meters per second during the wet season. This attribute made it unsuitable for shipping, which was developed in two parallel canals, and allowed a chance for restoration in this river landscape left neglected to industrialization.

A swan nests on the river. Gravel extraction is still allowed in some areas, but only when it gives benefits for nature or society. Photo: Belén Gutiérrez Carmona / REVOLVE.

“The park changes every year, which gives new opportunities for pioneer plants and different kinds of landscapes,” explains Frans Verstraeten, Director of Limburgs Landscape. They are helping nature to maximize biodiversity, for example by giving birds space to grow and breed, benefiting from grazing.

The Maas/Meuse is internationally acknowledged to be a bird area, since many birds overwinter here as an open natural area. This is also the park with the most biodiversity along the river, according to the studies they run since the restoration began. “The area doubled in hectares compared to the 1990s, and the biodiversity, the flora, tripled”, explains Katrien Schaerlaekens, Maasvallei River Park Manager with Regional Landscape Kempen and Maasland (RLKM).

The area doubled in hectares compared to the 1990s, and the biodiversity, the flora, tripled.

Katrien Schaerlaekens, Maasvallei River Park Manager with RLKM. 

Restoring nature in such a dynamic river also had important positive effects on flood protection. This was particularly evident during the severe floods that affected various European countries in summer 2021, including Belgium, the damage of which was avoided in this restored area of the Maas/Meuse River.

By lowering and protecting high-water levels and improving the spatial quality of the area, the organizations that run the restoration project allow the river natural erosion and bank retreat after the floods. “Water security here is fundamental for climate mitigation and adaptation too, as the ecosystem collect 4 tonnes of CO2/ha per year,” notes Jos Ramaekers, Head of Policy at Natuurpunt.

Horses and Galloways were introduced in the park in 1959 for grazing. Photo: Belén Gutiérrez Carmona / REVOLVE.

In monetary terms, the total annual economic value of the social benefits of the restoration (recreation, drinking water, carbon sequestration, flood protection) are expected to vary between 19.26 million euros and 24.63 million euros, according to the NGOs.

All these restoration activities are now merged with flourishing eco-tourism benefits that combine more sustainable sports such as hiking, cycling and kayaking, with guided tours, fishing and camping in a remarkable natural environment. It is estimated that the park receives 2 million visitors per year, with a revenue of 25 million euros annually.

Involving the local community

Beyond the numbers, the real success of this project has been the local stakeholder involvement. “The Maas is the heart of the site. I work for a landscape, not for a government,” states Schaerlaekens with regards to the integral collaboration of this exemplary cross-border project between Belgium and The Netherlands.

The local community has been central to nature restoration. It was difficult to get them on board at the beginning, but they soon realized the entrepreneurial potential of the project and experienced the wonders of nature as an essential part of society. They now enjoy and benefit from the activities, but also help to sustain and move the project forward.

Wetlands where water can infiltrate are important for water supply issues in agriculture and a natural cooling source for nearby cities. Photo: Belén Gutiérrez Carmona / REVOLVE.

Neighbours played an important role in helping the restoration project’s promoters to bring funding and policy-makers on board too. “We translated wildlife into what they understand: money. And it turns out that nature is the most profitable bank in the world: from every €1 invested in nature, the local community gets €10 benefit,” claims Ignace Schops, Director of RLKM and father of the (Re)connection Model, which reported him the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2008, also known as the Green Nobel Prize. His team exported this model from Flanders to several countries in the world as a local development approach that connects nature with people and with businesses.

EU Nature Restoration Law

More than 80% of the EU natural habitats are in a bad or poor conservation status, according to the data from the European Environmental Agency, which amounts to almost 15% of the river, lake, alluvial and riparian habitats. The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 and the Nature Restoration Law proposed by the European Commission (EC) aim to restore ecosystems, habitats and species across the EU’s land and sea areas. They set the goal of restoring at least 25,000 kilometers of free-flowing rivers by 2030 by removing primarily obsolete barriers and restoring floodplains and wetlands.

Now, the Nature Restoration Law must be discussed and agreed between the European Parliament and the Member States before the Parliament elections in 2024, in what is known as the trilogue negotiations. The EC proposal sets legally binding minimum restoration targets per country to cover at least 20% of the EU’s land and sea areas by 2030 and a requirement for Member States to develop nature restoration plans, which generates the rejection of some political groups.

Galloways resting by the river. Photo: Belén Gutiérrez Carmona / REVOLVE.

Despite concerns over the law’s impacts on agriculture or forestry, it is proven that nature restoration has climate action and economic benefits. In the case of farming, for example, these benefits arrive through healthier and more fertile soils that will produce higher yields, and in the case of forests, they will also benefit from healthier soils, increasing its carbon sequestration and storage capacities, and reducing the impact of wildfires, pest and diseases. Furthermore, the EC calculates that every €1 invested in nature restoration brings back 8-38€ benefit through the ecosystem services boosted.

It is calculated that every 1€ invested in nature restoration brings back 8-38€ benefit through the ecosystem services boosted.

Europe must commit to ambitious restoration targets to reverse nature’s decline. Ecosystem restoration can enhance biodiversity and make the planet nature positive by 2030 through successful projects for both the environment and local economies, such as Maasvallei River Park.

This feature emanated from a field trip for media organized by WWF and WWF Belgium on 11 April 2023.  

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