Lonjsko Polje – a river basin wetland


Ramsar’s Standing Committee member from Croatia, Goran Gugić, is director of the Lonjsko Polje Nature Park, i.e. the public institution in charge of the management of one of the largest Ramsar sites in southeastern Europe. As an outcome of a European Union-funded LIFE project on the living landscape and floodplain ecosystem of the central Sava river basin (cf. our report on its first stakeholder meeting, Goran recently published a nicely produced analysis “Managing sustainability in conditions of change and unpredictability”. The handy publication provides a very readable reflection on the management of the Sava river floodplain and a captivating case study on how to implement Ramsar’s consolidated scientific and technical guidance on wetlands and river basin management, as adopted at COP10 through Resolution X.19.

The analysis starts with an argument for wetland managers on how to become versatile before managing sustainability in changing and unpredictable conditions, such as those often prevailing in a living landscape and dynamic river ecosystem. Some time ago, when nature conservation became a major issue, nature was understood as untouched wilderness, and it was the wilderness that was endangered. Then, ‘nature’ came to mean ecosystems and biodiversity, and the natural resources were declared threatened. Man had no longer to be excluded, and management became integrated. At the turn to this millennium, culture too started to be recognized as being essential for nature conservation, and traditional knowledge is now considered being endangered. Management had to become participatory, and protected areas are now more and more linked up in networks. Today’s challenges are driven by climate change and urbanisation and will affect protected areas and their long-term stability. The features for which an area was originally protected may disappear and appear in another place outside of the protected area. Decision-making has thus to become versatile and flexible, and management has to become inclusive. Man has to be involved, and protected areas will play an active part in the development of the entire space.

The book then presents the case of the Sava river, starting with a look at key ecological processes of inundation and sedimentation and the river basin characteristics driving them. The floodplain looks at first sight like a flat and level stretch of land, but is rather a micro-relief with depressions and mountains intimately bound up with the lives and settlements of people. Their sequence of land use strictly follows the way the floods advance and retreat. Large woodland complexes (managed and used for their high quality timber oaks), dependent on the flood dynamics, guarantee a high level of naturalness and ecological processes, - as long as foresters and water managers intervene at the right moment and sequence. And the keystone process of human adaptation to flooding is the traditional pasturing on three parts of the floodplain: on the commonly-used lands most liable to floods, on haymaking meadows used temporarily for grazing while the commons remain flooded, and on the highest parts, such as embankments and road edges near the villages. This pasturing is a key ecological process executed by domestic breeds with specific traits enabling them to survive under extreme conditions (parasites, drought, muddy soils, limited food resources). Posavina horses, for example, must form into large natural herds while they are on the pastures and immediately adapt to a tethered life in the cramped space of a wooden stable during periods of high floods.

The author briefly compares the Sava floodplain with other Ramsar sites also listed by the World Heritage Convention (which Lonjsko Polje also aspires to, and which dictated somewhat the jargon of the book), such as Hortobágy in the Tisza floodplain (Hungary) or Hondo del Elche (Spain). He concludes that in the Sava plain, human societies have subordinated almost everything to the occurrence of floods, while in other places they rather pursued the idea of taming the river. Lonjkso Polje provides a living example of how to live with, rather than against, the floods, and shows that this produced a unique cultural landscape, as a result of countless responses to flood disasters.

The simple concept of flood control with the construction of dikes along water courses to divert floods downstream was never accepted in the central Sava basin. Part of the reasons for this was the deliberate use by the Habsburg monarchy of the natural barrier of the Sava river and its floodplain as a defence system against the Ottoman empire. And even the experts of the centrally-planned socialist regime designed in 1972 a new flood control plan with the inclusion of a 50,000-hectare wetland area for flood retention on potentially arable land. An idea not supported at the time by international donors such as the World Bank – but  things have changed. The Ramsar site management is now watching to avoid unsuitable forms of land use, to assure the integrity of the floodplain ecosystems and the continuation of ecological key processes, and to provide sufficient scope for water management to deal with equal success with drought and flooding. This proved to be a cheap way to allow local people to continue their traditional land use in the rural area.

The final chapters are again more theoretical and recall briefly the major pillars needed to manage change (such as identifying key processes, adequate zoning of the area, accepting spatial integrity, or managing risks with the concept of “serial sites”). They indicate how to move from vision to action and list twelve principles for sustainable management under changing and unpredictable conditions.

All in all, the small book (ISBN 978-953-97950-9-5) provides a very illustrative and thought-provoking lecture for wetland managers, well beyond the Sava floodplain. If interested, please ask for a copy by contacting Lonjsko Polje Nature Park Public Service, Krapje 16, HR-44325 Krapje, Croatia, info@pp-lonjsko-polje.hr.

-- Tobias Salathé, Ramsar


Traditional pasturing in the Lonjsko Polje floodplain of the Sava river – the answer to change and unpredictability (photo gallery www.pp-lonjkso-polje.hr)

The author and Ramsar Standing Committee member Goran Gugić explaining the ecological functions of a permanent pond (e.g. for grazing animals) in the Sava floodplain, covered with i.a. water clover (Marsilea quadrifolia), a water plant, for which the Ramsar site provides an important habitat.

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