Hotspots of river protection

A study by the Institute of Hydrobiology and Aquatic Ecosystem Management (IHG) examined the protection status of ecologically intact rivers in Austria.

Riverine landscapes are among the most threatened ecosystems worldwide. Due to the intensive use of rivers and their floodplain systems over the past centuries, Austrian rivers are also affected by numerous pressures - in particular due to structural changes and migration barriers, changes in discharge dynamics and flow velocity.

Funded by the WWF, within the framework of the project "Hotspots Protection - Designation of ecologically valuable river stretches in Austria and their protection status", scientists from the Institute of Hydrobiology and Aquatic Ecosystem Management (IHG)  analysed all rivers in Austria with a catchment area of 10 km² or more with regard to their (ecological) intactness and protection status. 

Five selected basic criteria were used to analyse the ecological intactness / relevance of the river stretches and thus their protection need:  

  • (1)    high Ecological Status (15% of the watercourse network)
  • (2)    high Hydromorphological Status (19%)
  • (3)    Free flowing sections (17%)
  • (4)    Outstanding nature conservation significance of accompanying floodplains (1%)
  • (5)    potential habitat of threatened fish species on stretches of high or good ecological status (6%; 60% of native river fish species are endangered or even threatened with extinction)

For the designation of the protected status, both nature conservation and water protection instruments - both with a special focus on strict protection with regard to further structural alterations - were considered. 

Finally, the results of the comparative analysis showed that only about 24% of all river stretches with a high protection need are strictly protected against further alterations and uses (especially by hydropower). 

Against the background of the preparation of the Renewable Development Act on the one hand and the requirements of the EU Water Framework Directive and the Habitats Directive on the other, the results can make a significant contribution to strategic and balanced decision-making with regard to the further development of hydropower.

Press release WWF and download of the study: