The Rhine River Basin and the Haringvliet issue

The Rhine River Basin is located at the heart of Europe, covering a territory of 170,000 km2. It provides important services to nearly 60 million people living in the basin. The basin is governed by a comprehensive legal and institutional framework that has fostered cooperation among its nine riparian states since the 1950s. The International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine (ICPR) brings together the five states that contain a significant share of the basin (Germany, France, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland), with the aim of cooperating on its sustainable development. This includes not only water quality—the original focus of cooperation—but also other matters of relevance for the transboundary basin, including ecological restoration, flood management, fish migration, and climate change. Based on the 1999 Rhine Convention,40 the ICPR prepares international measuring programs to monitor the Rhine ecosystem, prepares programs of measures to address key water management issues, and coordinates any other relevant activities (Article 8). This includes the development of the Rhine River Basin Management Plan in response to WFD requirements.

While cooperation generally functions well and is often praised as a model for transboundary water management,41 disagreements continue to occur among riparian states. One that has sparked a lot of attention is the Haringvliet case, which presents a typical example not only of the challenges the governance of shared water resources in Europe is faced with, but also of how they are addressed within the complex multilevel legal and institutional framework in Europe, ultimately mitigating disagreements in a manner that avoids political escalation.

Based on earlier efforts under the Salmon 2000 program, in 2009, all members of the ICPR committed to the Master Plan Migratory Fish for the Rhine River,42 which aimed to re-introduce fish species formerly inhabiting the river. Among them, the Atlantic salmon was of particular ecological, but also political importance as it had become the ICPR’s flagship species, symbolizing collective efforts at cleaning up the Rhine and improving the river's ecological status. The strategy linked to the plan focused not only on water quality issues— one of the reasons why the salmon population had declined almost to extinction—but also on hydro-morphological alterations impeding the migration routes of salmon, both important objectives in the WFD and thus of a binding nature to the ICPR’s member states (except Switzerland).

In order to achieve the objectives of the Master Plan, states undertook a number of measures, mainly focusing on improving the fish passability of transverse structures in the Rhine and its tributaries in order to improve habitat connectivity. Between 2009 and 2018, more than 500 transverse structures were dismantled43 and a number of fish migration aids were installed. Further measures are planned until 2027. Until then, Rhine riparian states are expected to have spent more than 627 million EUR on measures to address hydro-morphological alterations that disrupt habitat connectivity.44 Additionally, a complex monitoring network for migratory fish—especially salmon—was set up that helps keep track of the salmon population as well as the effectiveness of measures implemented to achieve the objectives of the Master Plan. Most of these costly measures are borne by upstream states (Germany and France), where most transverse structures are located. The measures have led to significant success, with salmon returning to the Rhine. From 1990 to 2010, the number of adult salmon accounted for in the monitoring system increased from 1 to 549.45

One particularly important measure concerned the most downstream state, the Netherlands. The Master Plan required the opening

Managing disagreements in European basins 285 of one of the three distributaries of the Rhine for salmon to pass—a large sluice gate system at the mouth of the Rhine, originally built for stormwater protection, flood management, and the prevention of saltwater intrusion—the Haringvliet Sluice Gates. This measure was in line with a Dutch national plan, also proposing the opening of the gates (to at least some extent) that aimed at implementing measures that had been called for by Dutch environmental NGOs since the late 1990s and were finally adopted by the Dutch government in 2000.46

In 2010, shortly after the adoption of the Master Plan, a new government was elected in the Netherlands. The new government rested strongly on agricultural interests—which included flood protection and the prevention of saltwater intrusion and thus opposition to the opening of the Haringvliet gates. As a result, the government soon, in 2011, announced that it would not open the Haringvliet gates as previously agreed in a Dutch national process as well as with other ICPR member states.

This constituted a major impediment to river continuity and fish migration, and if salmon (as well as other anadromous fish species) would not be able to enter the river from the sea at all, all upstream efforts to ensure fish migration would be in vain. The other ICPR member states, strongly committed to the Master Plan, were taken by surprise. They quickly escalated their disagreement as the Dutch government confirmed its strong stance on keeping the gates closed.

In addition to public discussions—fostered by environmental NGOs in all riparian states, including the Netherlands—the matter was quickly taken to the political level. The ministers of the environment in the affected states (all Rhine riparians except the Netherlands) discussed the issue and eventually drafted a joint formal letter to the government of the Netherlands recalling the Dutch commitment to the Master Plan. It also referred to its legal obligations under the WFD with regard to the ecological status of water bodies within the EU, which includes river continuity and the requirement to improve passability for fish. These letters to the minister of the environment were also provided to the Dutch parliament. At the same time, the European Commission itself entered into discussions with the government of the Netherlands (starting in 2010), outlining the potential legal consequences of noncompliance with WFD requirements.

The ICPR quickly got involved, as the RBO responsible for the coordination of Rhine riparian states’ efforts at sustainable water resources management and the institution which originated the Master Plan. It played an important role in addressing disagreements andensuring that they were addressed in the framework of pre-existing and well-defined structures: the matter was discussed repeatedly during the ICPR’s Strategy Group meetings, providing all delegations the possibility of exchanging views and addressing the matter in a structured and cooperative manner.

In addition, a group was established by the ICPR consisting of experts from all member countries, tasked with discussing the issue (and an expert group was established at the level of the Netherlands to identify viable fish migration options). These discussions included investigations of potential alternatives for salmon migration beyond the Haringvliet sluices that would have offered a compromise solution. Such a solution was not found, however, as salmon depend entirely on the Haringvliet migration route. Nevertheless, it highlighted in a scientifically sound and inclusive manner the importance of this migration route and thus underlined the need to reopen the sluices in the interest of the entire basin.

Eventually, the Dutch government reversed its decision and announced in late 2011 that it would open the sluice gates. It would only do this, however, in 2018, which is justified with the numerous measures that would need to be implemented to allow for an opening of the gates while protecting the population from floods and changing local drinking water intakes (which would also involve additional costs).47 In November 2018, the gates were indeed (partially) opened and now allow for fish migration.48 Issues remain with regard to the partial opening of the gates and the fact that current Dutch legislation still allows for closing the gates in times of low water levels in order to prevent salinity intrusions, which could, according to estimates, still be the case for 100 days per year,49 trending upwards as a result of climate change.

The Haringvliet case study highlights how disagreements over a water management issue can be addressed through predefined cooperative technical and institutional processes—supported by higher-level political intervention to build up momentum (in the form of the ministerial letters) and public pressure through NGOs. This has allowed for the disagreement to be addressed in a way that not only solved the underlying technical matter but also ensured cooperative relations among all involved states throughout the entire process. The Haringvliet disagreement—similarly to the Bystroe Canal disagreement—thus got solved in the context of and thanks to the overarching cooperation framework in the pan-European region, with the RBO playing an important role as the actor that bridges technical knowledge and political negotiations.

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