Austria's National Ramsar Committee, 2009

28/04/2009

National Ramsar Committee meets on Lake Constance

On 20-21 April 2009, the Austrian National Ramsar Committee held its 22nd meeting, first in the governmental building of the federal state Vorarlberg in the city of Bregenz (famous for its opera performances on the shores of Lake Constance), then on an excursion boat cruising on Lake Constance. The Austrian National Ramsar Committee is a model of its kind, hopefully to become a source of inspiration for other countries aiming to reinforce their Ramsar work and implementation at national and local scales. The committee meets regularly (at least annually) and is composed of administrative Ramsar focal points in each of the nine Austrian federal states, of the National Ramsar Focal point in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management (i.e. the Ramsar Administrative Authority), the National Focal Points for STRP and CEPA and a number of experts representing IOPs, NGO and business companies actively engaged in Ramsar implementation at national level.

The annual meetings of the committee serve first and foremost to exchange information on ongoing projects, Ramsar site-related issues, new ideas to be developed at national level, and rapid transfer of new Ramsar information and tools from the global (COP and Standing Committee) to the national and sub-national levels. The short reports delivered to the meeting by the federal states concluded, among other issues, that the Committee will ask for a Ramsar Advisory Mission to look into the potential threats posed by highway development plans crossing the Trilateral Ramsar Site Floodplains of the Danube-Morava-Dyje Confluence, listed on the Montreux Record; that the search for the best possible dredging and river modification measures for navigation and floodplain ecosystem support along the Danube still needs to continue; and that the very successful national peatland restoration campaign should be followed up by a second phase. The Austrian delegates who participated in COP10 (Changwon 2008) briefly informed their colleagues about the major outputs and debates. This allowed the Committee to conclude that the Austrian National Wetland Strategy, based on the earlier Ramsar Strategic Plan, should be updated according to the provisions provided in the new Ramsar Strategic Plan 2009-2014.

Another session of the meeting was devoted to mutual information on ongoing projects and new proposals, including on a project co-funded by the European Union’s Interreg IV-A programme to create a peatland alliance in the Austrian federal states of Tirol and Salzburg and Bavaria (Germany), on the creation of “Natura Trails”, i.e. nature discovery trails for visitors in all Austrian Ramsar sites and other protected areas (www.naturatrails.net), coordinated by Naturfreunde International (“Nature Friends”), on the new national floodplain inventory and strategy, and on the concept of a “peatland and wetland week” to complement World Wetlands Day activities in late summer, a season considered more appropriate for outdoor education and awareness activities than on, often snowy and icy, 2nd February. The National CEPA NGO Focal Point, of Naturschutzbund (“Nature Conservation League”), presented the national biodiversity campaign in the making (www.vielfaltleben.at), that aims also to contribute to Ramsar implementation, and matches perfectly with the theme of World Wetlands Day 2010 and the UN Year of Biodiversity proclaimed for the same year.

Substantial discussions were also held on the “National Masterplan Water Resources” and its relation with the implementation requested by the EU Water Framework Directive and the Ramsar requirements to preserve wetland ecosystem services. The public company Österreichische Bundesforste ÖBf (“Austrian Federal Forests”), already known for its peatland restoration programme, asked the Committee develop a national position statement on possible climate change impacts on wetland ecosystems and their biodiversity in the coming years.

A specific session of the meeting focused on CEPA activities; among others on the bilateral environmental education concept developed by WWF with the National Park and Ramsar site managers of Neusiedlersee-Seewinkel (Austria) and Fertö-Hanság (Hungary), on the campaign for living rivers in Tirol developed by WWF, and on the Countdown 2010 campaign by ÖBf to maintain biodiversity in forest wetlands.

This meeting also provided that opportunity to focus on transboundary cooperation for Ramsar implementation. Progress with the work of the trilateral Ramsar platform for the Danube-Morava-Dyje confluence (Austria, Czech and Slovak Republics) was briefly presented, as well as the “Drava River Declaration”, signed by the delegations of the five basin states (Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Italy, Slovenia) at the end of a very successful meeting in 2008. The Committee also recognized the need for increased cooperation with the Bavarian neighbours for the coordinated management of the adjacent Ramsar sites on the Lower Inn in Germany and Austria.

And in a very concrete way, the excursion boat “Elisa” provided transboundary meeting facilities during the second day, leaving Bregenz pier in the morning, cruising first to the lake shores of Wasserburg in Bavaria (Germany) for a short glimpse on the local nature reserve, and then to Rorschach on the Swiss shores and upstream along the “Old Rhine” river arm, forming the border between Austria and Switzerland. This and the last stop in the centre of the Austrian Ramsar site Rheindelta (Rhine Delta) provided the opportunity to have a close look at the ongoing restoration works to create gently sloping, natural shorelines, where concrete walls and stone dams prevailed since the construction of the “New Rhine” river channel in the 1950s. The Rhine river transports impressive amounts of coarse grained sediments into Lake Constance, originating from the nearby Alps upstream, and this creates substantial challenges for the lake and shoreline management. The Committee took the occasion of its lake cruise and on-site visit to express its wish that the network of existing nature reserves along the lake shores be recognized as a functional unit, essentially for waterbirds, suffering from much disturbance by recreation and fishing activities, and expressed its hope that, together with the Austrian Rhine Delta Ramsar site, also the nearby remaining wetland habitats in Switzerland be designated as a Transboundary Ramsar Site, as already suggested a few years ago in a joint report on Ramsar implementation by the Austrian, German and Swiss Courts of Auditors. Also, the network of remaining and restored reedbeds, wet grasslands, fens, permanent and temporary ponds and peat bogs, further upstream in the Rhine valley in Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, arguably merit to be included into an extended Ramsar site, based on Liechtenstein’s first Ramsar site Ruggeller Riet.

These few lines try to summarize a very intensive and impressive agenda of barely twelve hours of exchanges and discussions. Christiana Machold and Walter Niederer from Vorarlberg federal state, and Gerhard Sigmund of the Federal Ministry in Vienna, are to be congratulated for hosting and organizing this very inspiring and pleasant meeting; to be followed on 11-12 November 2009 by a specific symposium on the importance of wetlands in relation to drinking water resources, climate change and biodiversity.

The meeting in session on Lake Constance, best visible are in the foreground (f.l.t.r.) Gernot Neuwirth (CEPA NGO focal point), Christiana Machold (chairing), Walter Niederer (manager of the Rheindelta Ramsar site) and Gert Michael Steiner (STRP focal point).

Tourist attraction Wasserburg with its Baroque church on the Bavarian shores of Lake Constance

Willows along the “Old Rhine” arm entering Lake Constance and forming the border between Austria and Switzerland

Bernd Siessegger explains the nearly completed shoreline restoration works in the Rheindelta Ramsar site (www.rheindelta.org).

Restored vegetated shoreline in the Rheindelta Ramsar site

-- Tobias Salathé, Ramsar

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