Story | 28 Aug, 2020

Water, our ally in adapting to climate change in the Western Balkans

The Western Balkans are highly prone to climate change, affecting water resources, while predictions indicate increases in extreme weather events leading to repeated disasters.

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Buna River in Albania

Photo: © IUCN

In times of crisis, such as the one we are facing right now due to COVID-19, proper hygiene and access to clean water are crucial. Just as important is a set of measures that adequately addresses the challenges faced by society. This holds true for emergencies of public health as much as for other types of societal challenges and disasters.

While increased focus over the last few weeks and months has been placed on adequate protection from the pandemic, achieving long-term resilience requires a closer look at the numerous related challenges that affect ecosystem health and societal wellbeing across different regions. These challenges are often exacerbated by climate change.

According to the European Environment Agency report on Climate change, impacts and vulnerabilities in Europe, south-eastern and southern Europe are considered highly prone to climate change effects. This means that the region faces the highest impact of climate change with several sectors and domains severely affected, including water resources and related ecosystems as well as water infrastructure. Climate change projections for the Western Balkans indicate increases in extreme weather events over the next decades. Land-use changes are predicted to be the dominant factor in determining water availability in the short-term, while the intensity of climate change is likely to become the principal factor over the long-term.

Picture of river in Montenegro 2020 River in Montenegro Photo: © Mika Korhonen from Unsplash

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also identified the Western Balkans as one of the most vulnerable areas in Europe. The region will face rises in temperature larger than the European average, changes in precipitation patterns, leading to increased flood risk, extended periods of drought, soil erosion and forest fires. Climate change will most probably increase negative impacts, resulting in significant habitat, human and economic losses. The floods in 2014 demonstrated that the region is not prepared nor adequately equipped to deal with the increasing dangers posed by climate-related impacts. Although improvements in flood prevention and protection systems have been made since 2014, more recent flood events in 2019 and 2020 showed that more needs to be done to adequately address floods and related disasters. 

Rivers are considered one of the most productive ecosystems and important biodiversity areas and play a vital role in the life of humans providing key ecosystem goods and services. The Aoos/Vjosa River in Greece and Albania, for example, is of regional and even European importance. However, this unparalleled resource of outstanding natural and social values is threatened by the construction of about 40 hydropower projects endangering the entire ecosystem. If these plans are materialised they will transform the water catchments into a chain of accumulation lakes, interrupting any natural river flow and biodiversity functions. The project “Saving Europe’s last free flowing wild river – Vjosa/Aoos” is currently working towards the prevention of the devastating developments aiming also to designate the river catchments as a transboundary protected area.

Managing competing ecosystem and societal needs and priorities is a key challenge when balancing human wellbeing against ecosystem health and biodiversity conservation. A vision for conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the Vjosa catchment area is being developed to enable the protection of critical freshwater ecosystems and at the same time support local communities’ livelihoods through safeguarding the provision of vital ecosystem services.

Decisions need to be taken now that will determine how the region will respond to the challenges that lie ahead. Nature-based Solutions can provide a cost-effective, no-regret solution to reduce disasters and increase societal resilience, while producing other benefits, such as increased ecosystem health (e.g. cleaner water). Such solutions can take various forms. The goal is to protect and sustainably manage ecosystems in the first instance, while it may also be necessary to take restoration or re-creation actions. A new IUCN initiative – ADAPT: Nature-based Solutions for resilient societies in the Western Balkans – helps countries to tap into the power of Nature-based Solutions in the Western Balkans by generating knowledge, demonstrating the application of such solutions through pilot projects and building capacities to make the case for increased linkages between water resources management, climate adaptation, ecosystem services and related biodiversity benefits. The recently launched IUCN Global Standard for Nature-based Solutions provides an important common framework, setting clear parameters to define and guide Nature-based Solutions interventions.

Buna river Velipoje, Albania Buna River in Albania Photo: © IUCN

One example of a Nature-based Solution involving the water sector are wetlands. Wetlands, all over the world offer invaluable benefits for nature and human beings, but at the same time, are among the most fragile and threatened ecosystems declining at an alarming rate. In the 20th century, between 64-71% of wetlands have been lost globally. The protection and restoration of wetlands is critical as they perform various roles and provided essential services, including cleaning the water that flows through them, mitigating floods and weather extremes, such as storm surges in coastal areas, recharging aquifers, providing fisheries for local communities, water for agriculture and rich habitats for wildlife. More recently, wetlands have become more popular ecotourism destinations, providing spaces for inspiration, education or simply recreation.

To take advantage of the full spectrum of benefits, actions need to be taken to preserve wetlands of high ecological values. These actions should create an enabling environment for sustainable conditions and uses of these ecosystems, through the mechanisms of good, effective and equitable governance. The “Mediterranean Coastal Wetlands: Governance Handbook”, developed as part of the overarching initiative of the MAVA Foundation “Coastal Wetland Action Plan”, is designed as a practical guide for the governance of coastal wetlands around the Mediterranean and gives wetland managers online planning tools filled with innovative solutions and useful tips to achieve excellence in governance.

Wetlands also provide important functions in the context of coastal areas. The river Buna/Bojana is an important river of the South Western Balkans. Its delta features a diverse range of unique natural habitats, including wetlands of international importance. Besides supporting a wealth of native and protected wildlife and vegetation (the recent IUCN Red List of Albanian Flora identified around 320 threatened and rare species), the Buna/Bojana river delta is also known for its distinct cultural landscape providing dwellings for around 36,000 people. Unfortunately, the region’s economy is weak and underdeveloped. Unsustainable farming practices, conversion of wetlands to farmlands, as well as coastal habitat destruction caused by increased tourism have adverse impacts on water availability and water regulation of the area.

Buna river Velipoje, Albania The river Buna is an important river of the South Western Balkans Photo: © IUCN

To address these challenges, IUCN and partners launched a Small Grants Programme in the frame of the Living Buna project. The grants support local communities’ livelihoods by expanding sustainable nature friendly business practices. It is expected that these projects will help preserve wetlands and stimulate the sustainable use of water resources as a consequence of the increased awareness and knowledge of the local population. In concrete terms, this means that targeted activities will reduce water usage on farms, support restoration of wetland habitats and provide new economic opportunities by introducing nature-friendly eco-tourism approaches.

Much remains to be done to address the challenges in the Western Balkans. COVID-19 is a test on how to address common societal challenges that know no borders. Climate change and its impacts are felt across boundaries affecting water management and supply decisions – whether related to droughts, floods or other challenges. Cooperation and action across sectors will be key to overcome these challenges and to make our societies more resilient. Nature plays a major role in achieving sustainable development goals and reducing disaster risks.

Text prepared by Kristin Meyer and Sofia Tvaradze