In 2007 Austria organised the first meeting for European Ramsar STRP national focal points in Mittersill. Now, two years later, Austria was again the first country to organise a national Ramsar conference, 11-12 November 2009, focusing on “the significance of wetlands for drinking water supply, climate change mitigation and biodiversity support”.
Around 140 experts gathered in Eisenstadt, the capital of Austria’s youngest federal state Burgenland, including participants from the neighbouring countries Hungary, Slovenia and Switzerland. A first highlight was the conference opening with the release of the German version of Ramsar’s captivating movie “wetlands: keeping our planet alive and well” prepared by the Federal Ministry for the Environment with the support of the Austrian Federal Forests Ltd and the Ramsar Secretariat (DVD copies can be obtained from the Ramsar Secretariat or the Ministry).
On the second day, the conference culminated in the signing ceremony of a declaration of cooperation between Austria and Hungary for the joint management of the new transboundary Ramsar site “Neusiedler See-Seewinkel – Fertö-Hanság”, composed of three already earlier designated national Ramsar sites (cf. www.ramsar.org/...). This was a particularly memorable event, as it happened at the place where exactly twenty years earlier Hungary was the first to open the “iron curtain” that separated eastern from western Europe since World War II and was running right across the internationally important steppe lake. Now, the reunified transboundary Ramsar site forms an important cornerstone of the new “European Green Belt” along the former political dividing line.
The conference programme focused on three crucial issues supported by wetland ecosystems. During the first part, the role of groundwater flows, karst aquifers, springs and other upstream wetland types for the provision of good quality drinking water for the capital Vienna (2 million inhabitants) was presented. In the discussion, notably the designation of two upstream mountain wetland areas, managed by the Vienna Waterworks Ltd, was proposed. This would provide another opportunity for the business sector to support Ramsar site designations, after the very successful campaign run by the Austrian Federal Forests Ltd which culminated between 2003 and 2005 in the designation of six forest mire areas for the Ramsar List.
Climate change, and the different roles wetland ecosystems are able to play to mitigate its undesired effects, was the second topic. It was impressively introduced by IPCC expert Ms Helga Kromp-Kolb focusing on alpine and continental wetland ecosystems. Then, Ramsar’s STRP focal points Andreas Grünig and Gert Michael Steiner, as well as Gerald Plattner and Stefanie Dymak of the Austrian Federal Forests Ltd, presented specific actions to prevent greenhouse gas releases and to sequester carbon through mire restoration activities.
The third session focused on wetland services to stop the loss of biodiversity, illustrated by a number of programmes run individually in several federal states and by the major environmental organisations at national level, often with financial support by the Federal Ministry of Environment. Gerhard Sigmund, the Ramsar national focal point in the Ministry, has to be congratulated for his untiring organisation of this excellent meeting, ably hosted by Wolfgang Pelikan, who represents Burgenland in the National Ramsar Committee and is formally executing a coordinating role between the nine federal states. More information on the conference, including the presentations made, can be found (in German) at this excellent website www.ramsar.at.
In between the sessions, a specific media conference was organised to maintain and increase the public interest in Ramsar matters. The mayor of the neighbouring commune of Purbach proudly announced his plans to build a new “Ramsar information centre” in its holiday village situated between lake Neusiedl and the vineyards on the Leitha hills (forming a nature park). And the participants were well fed with Ramsar site specialities such as grey cattle goulash from the lake Neusiedl National Park and locally bred geese (appropriate on St. Martin’s day) as well as a number of special dishes from the Lafnitz valley Ramsar site somewhat further south. All in all two days packed with innovative Ramsar activities, projects and plans.
A look over the vineyards on the slopes of the Leitha hills (forming part of the World Heritage Convention cultural landscape) on the extensive reedbeds fringing lake Neusiedl-Fertö in the background autumn mist.
Gerhard Sigmund, the conference organiser and Ramsar national focal point at the Austrian “Life Ministry” (responsible for the environment, agriculture, food, forestry and water management, www.lebensministerium.at), sitting in front of the attentive audience to the 1st Austrian Ramsar Conference in Eisenstadt, 11-12 November 2009.
Wolfgan Pelikan, Ramsar coordinator among the Austrian federal states, helps State Secretary Istvan Kling from Hungary and Burgenland Councillor Werner Falb-Meixner from Austria to sign the bilateral declaration on cooperation for the management of the new transboundary Ramsar site “Neusiedler See-Seewinkel – Fertö-Hanság” . . . .
before they receive the Ramsar diplomas from Tobias Salathe, Ramsar’s senior adviser for Europe.
The conference provided the occasion to launch the German versions of the Ramsar movie “wetlands: keeping our planet alive and well” and of the leaflet providing general information about the Convention.