Green group warns river life under threat

Over-harnessing of water upstream is thought to dry up rivers and harm plants and wildlife (Pro Natura)

Environmentalists have urged the hydroelectric industry to stop further damage to Switzerland's biodiversity and prevent the country's watercourses from becoming depleted.

This content was published on May 5, 2006

The non-governmental group, Pro Natura, warned on Friday that thousands of fish and aquatic animals are dying out through an over-harnessing of rivers.

Switzerland's largest conservation organisation accused hydroelectric power companies of shutting the sluice gates to numerous watercourses in their pursuit of profits.

"Switzerland needs to do more for its suffering rivers and streams if it doesn't want to see the disappearance of even more fish and animal species," explained Silva Semadeni, Pro Natura's president at a news conference in Bern.

The warning came as the Association of Swiss Fishermen is collecting signatures for a constitutional amendment on the re-naturalisation of rivers.

For its part the Federal Environment Office last year said efforts were underway to enlarge space for rivers.

Biodiversity at risk

Pro Natura says only ten per cent of Swiss rivers flow in their original natural state. The remaining 90 per cent have been put into "concrete corsets"; their courses have been redirected or they have simply been left to dry up.

The impact on plants and wildlife living near rivers and streams has been dramatic.

Of the 54 fish species originally recorded in Switzerland, eight are extinct and 35 are currently endangered. Also, 90 per cent of alluvial forests have disappeared, according to campaigners.

The organisation called on the hydroelectric power industry, accused of causing huge damage to the environment, to respect the 1992 water protection law.

"The water protection law is still not being properly applied despite the fact that it was supported by 66 per cent of the Swiss in a nationwide ballot," said Beat Jans, head of Pro Natura's political and international affairs division.

NGO criticism

The NGO also criticised the relationship between the Swiss cantons and the hydroelectric power companies where "the more water is taken by the companies, the more money flows into the local authorities' coffers".

The conservation group calculates that cleaning up the rivers would cost [the hydroelectric water companies] only ten per cent of their net income.

The rehabilitation of watercourses would be good for both man and nature. "It is the best possible protection against flooding," said the coordinator of the new three-year "Free our rivers" campaign, Franziska Zoller-Wüthrich. "And natural rivers are extremely beautiful, relaxing places for the general public."

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Numerous rivers and streams dry up periodically as a result of water withdrawals. Since 1992, legal requirements have existed concerning the minimum amounts of water – or residual flow - to be maintained in streambeds downstream of a withdrawal site.

Over-harnessing of water upstream is thought to dry up rivers and have a harmful effect on plants and wildlife.

Pro Natura is the largest conservation organization in Switzerland. Founded in 1909, it has an annual turnover of SFr12 million.

The "Free our rivers" three-year campaign was launched in Bern on May 5, 2006.

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Key facts

Switzerland has one of the most diverse plant and wildlife habitats in Europe.
Over the past 150 years, 224 species of plants and animals have disappeared.
Eight of the 54 original fish species found in Switzerland are now extinct and 35 are endangered. Also, 90% of alluvial forests have disappeared.

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