Wild Rivers vs. Big Jump
River swimming and nature protection — a conflict of interests?
Clear blue water streaming downhill a scenic landscape, turning white when meeting rocks, sandy riverbanks with bright green vegetation, flocks of water birds, colourful fish and only the sound of sparkling water and the wind in the trees — one of the many pictures coming to mind when thinking of a wild river.
And indeed, wild rivers flow free, naturally and unhindered by humanity. They are not modified by any means (such as straightening, channelling or dams) and usually have an exceptionally high water quality and rich endemic biodiversity which makes them look beautiful to so many of us and, sadly, incredibly rare.
Source: Roz Rokman
On the other hand we have people who love swimming in rivers. And rightfully so! After all, we wouldn't organise the Big Jump if we didn't believe in it. But bathing does bring along potential harm to rivers. This can be in the form of littering, noise, careless approach (for instance getting too close to nesting places or stepping on delicate plants) or even substances like sunscreen and mosquito repellent in especially fragile ecosystems.
Some of that we see in the Big Jump as well: people running or jumping into a river while making a lot of noise — and clearly in the spirit of the Big Jump!
So how does it make sense to fight for river protection through disturbing nature? How do these two seemingly opposite actions go together?
Currently, the Balkans face a boom in hydropower development. This also threatens the Vjosa, the last truly natural river in Europe, also known as the Blue Heart of Europe. Especially in an unstable economy environmental protection has a weak stand opposing highly profitable projects. One solution regarding the threats towards the Vjosa and so many other rivers could be strengthening sustainable water-tourism (which also includes bathing!) instead.
In France river swimming is a common pastime. So common indeed that you can find detailed information about a vast number of bathing spots online, including those in rather rural areas. Those are all provided by the government, which also regularly tests for water quality and possible health risks. Today a thriving industry is closely connected to the French habit of river bathing.
Having a high number of classified bathing spots automatically reduces the pressure on the river's ecosystems through distributing the bathing public instead of concentrating it in few areas. Though it is debatable whether this argument is valid in densely populated areas, it nevertheless indicates a positive effect of more bathing opportunities in rivers - one of the goals of the Big Jump Challenge.
France is also the country where the 'Wild Rivers Site'-label was developed. The most important European Water legislation, the Water Framework Directive, does not specifically protect wild rivers and leaves them in great danger to completely vanish from Europe. This point is directly addressed by the 'Wild Rivers Site'-label, aiming to add further value to wild rivers. To receive the label, rivers are not only assessed ecologically, but parameters like infrastructure or the activities and support of local communities are taken into account as well, highlighting the economic power of wild rivers.
The identification of the local communities with 'their' river is a crucial point here. When people start reclaiming the rivers it creates a conflict between economic reasons that benefit only a few and openly accessible benefits such as the recreational value of intact river ecosystems and a raised water quality. Both at the same time are not always possible since many threats to rivers, such as extensive building plans, excessive fertilizer from agriculture and discharge of wastewater create safety hazards that lead to bans on the use of rivers for health reasons.
Jumping into a river may well be a disturbance for the ecosystem, but in comparison to dams or canalisation? Not so much! Instead, it can aid in shifting the use of rivers towards more sustainable practices. It can help people getting more connected with rivers (and nature in general), educate them about the declining state of Europe's rivers and may motivate them to protect what little is left for future generations and to repair what has already been harmed.
Christiane Klemm, Landscape Ecology Student, Greifswald
Further Links in addition to those provided in the text:
Interactive map of bathing spots in France: http://baignades.sante.gouv.fr/baignades/homeMap.do#a
River Action Toolbox with many links to wild rivers, ethics, politics etc: http://en.bigjumpchallenge.net/156.html