“The first rivers I worked on were in the Galapagos. I went there as a volunteer. First, I was involved in water treatment. Then, I returned to Italy and encountered CIRF, the Italian Centre for River Restoration (Centro Italiano per la Riqualificazione Fluviale). Since then, I have never stopped fighting to protect rivers”.
Today, Andrea Goltara is the director of CIRF, an organisation based in Mestre, in the province of Venice, which is very active on technical fronts. Perhaps less well-known among environmental activists, CIRF nevertheless carries out important and valuable work on laws and regulations regarding rivers, putting pressure on regional governments, the Italian parliament, or the European Commission in an attempt to prove that rivers can be managed in a more natural way. This can lead to economic and environmental benefits, managing risk in an intelligent manner.
Italy today is far from its rivers, culturally more so than geographically
Andrea Goltara on safeguarding Italy’s rivers
“Italy today is far away from its rivers, culturally more so than geographically. In other countries, like France, there’s more of a tendency to live in river areas and manage them in a modern, integrated, and eco-friendly way”. This is why, for over twenty years, Goltara has been fighting to convince the bodies that manage waterways to do so in a different way. “We need to leave more space for rivers, manage them more naturally, proving that risk management, water, water uptake, and biodiversity conservation goals can be met in this way”.
“In Italy, there’s a wide cultural gap concerning river ecology and the management of nature more generally, but especially waterways,” Goltara explains. “What’s missing is the widespread awareness of the laws and basic conservation and management measures to maintain waterways in good condition”.
Often, these requirements are already established in other countries, but in Italy, they’re missing. “Politicians also frequently don’t have the sensitivity to understand that carrying out impactful work on riverbeds can cause serious damage. What’s lacking is the cultural, technical substrate. The approach is still completely oriented towards infrastructurisation and cementation, and it’s really hard to go beyond this”. No matter if it’s disastrous management in Veneto or indolence in southern regions, the cases of good river administration are few and far between.
“Generally, the concept of “flood-safety” prevails over concerns for hydro-geological instability, with the former being an erroneous concept that should also be abandoned in communications. Canalisation and excavation works are carried out that supposedly increase “flood-safety” in a region. Meanwhile, in reality, they have the opposite effect”.
Furthermore, Goltara has been fighting for years with regards to irrigation and hydropower, especially “small hydro” plants that could damage the few waterways that are still in good condition in the Alps and Appennine mountain regions. “Even in this case, false social benefits are promoted. Small hydropower plants are built all over the place, accompanied by claims of this being done “for renewable energy and the climate”. In truth, the effective contribution of these new small plants is essentially negligible”. He is also trenchant concerning irrigation: “Consumption is being reviewed too slowly, while there’s a rapid change in hydrogeological patterns that is increasingly causing crises in these systems”.
The Venetian activist is a passionate rower, canoeist, and “river explorer”, whose deep knowledge of many waterways comes from having navigated them for pleasure and work. More and more often, Goltara notices the increasing level of pollution from both plastic and other emergent pollutants, many of which are linked to agriculture, farming, and more. “This pollution, in addition to misguided works, puts river biodiversity at risk. It was already under threat from invasive species, such as the sheat-fish in the Po basin. Every time we perform sampling we find more and more”.
Bringing rivers back to their natural state
The solution might be the restoration of rivers’ natural condition. “We use the term restoration (riqualificazione, ed.), by which we mean any action that brings a waterway closer to its “natural” condition, meaning those that would have been present without human intervention. River systems are dynamic, they change over time and, most importantly, they adapt to the conditions and contours that evolve naturally. Restoration doesn’t mean transforming a river to how it was before the 1800s, but rather leaving more space for natural processes to play out. The priority is to preserve those waterways that are still in good condition. We are altering river systems much quicker than we are restoring them”.
The fight also involves trying to grant rivers legal personality, as happened in New Zealand, so as to better defend them from a legal standpoint. “This status can help us especially because it links together mitigation and improvement interventions to the inevitable anthropic benefits. Thus, the river is considered in the entirety of its processes, regardless of economic benefits. The EU already has some important instruments in force. The full implementation of the Water Framework Directive would achieve great results. The problem is that, so far, it has been applied too timidly. And Italy, in this sense, is completely unsatisfactory”.
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