Home | Sitemap | Imprint | Privacy Statement | Deutsch

1.2.01 The Elbe basin – a research model for river management in the future

The Elbe river basin is an extremely exciting field of research for scientists in ecological disciplines. Whereas the quality of the Elbe’s water was extremely poor some years back, the flood plains for the river formerly serving as an international border were able to sustain the versatile structure that most rivers of a similar size loose as a result of construction. This means the 1,091 kilometre stretch of river and its basin has the potential to survive as a near-natural river habitat in future. The Elbe basin therefore serves as a model region where experts can research usage conflicts and develop solution concepts.

The structure and history of the Elbe have made it the subject of many research activities within a whole host of different scientific disciplines – wholly within the intent of the EU Water Framework Directive. This directive demands river basin management aimed at achieving sustainability. Development concepts for large-scale river habitats with their diverse forms of interaction have only emerged to some extent previously – including on an international front. In the meantime, it has become apparent that preservation of river habitats requires a fully integrated approach that must support a complex assessment of the ecological and commercial situation within the river basin.

As such, the BMBF provided around EUR 20 million of funding for 28 scientific projects within the joint research programme on the ecology of the Elbe between 1996 and 2005. Experts within the individual projects examined ecological and economic connections and developed solution concepts for the various usage requirements of farmland, conservation, water management and shipping.

Natural areas rather than administrative units

View of the Elbe and its flood plains (Source: Federal Institute of Hydrology)

View of the Elbe and its flood plains (Source: Federal Institute of Hydrology)
View of the Elbe and its flood plains (Source: Federal Institute of Hydrology)

The researchers should not only gather scientific findings, they should also devise instruments and handling recommendations for politicians and planners. The requirements of the EU Water Framework Directive state that the river, its flood plains and the basin should be considered as a functional unit. The effects of the Elbe flood of 2002 and the extreme drought of 2003 have already clearly shown in dramatic fashion that ecological phenomena must be considered not within the confines of administrative borders but by those of natural areas.

Three focuses for research

Topic 1: The ecology of flowing waters
Key phrases such as “creating retention basins by installing dykes” and “guaranteeing minimum waterway depths through tailored river-engineering maintenance measures” are on everyone’s lips in the wake of the floods. However, such measures have an effect on water levels, affect the hydrodynamics and morphodynamics of the waters and influence the living conditions of fish and micro-organisms. The micro-organisms in the Elbe are especially important for material conversion and thus for the quality of the water. The researchers investigated these connections by examining the morphological, hydraulic and biocoenotic webs of interaction. The main focus was on which processes control the composition and dynamic of the living communities within the Elbe. The results of in-depth field tests and devised models provided the answer, the end product being a contemporary, comprehensive overview of the research on water quality, which also included decision-making supports for planning water engineering measures.

The joint Elbe ecology research programme

The joint Elbe ecology research programme
The joint Elbe ecology research programme

Topic 2: The ecology of the flood plains
Engineering rivers and changing land usage within flood plains are actions that have ecological consequences. Public discussion has seen an increased demand for the clearing of flood zones and the reclamation of river flood plains. This poses the question as to what an environmentally appropriate development of the flood plains in the Elbe river basin might look like. The consequences for the affected farmland, the population and the flora and fauna must be taken into account. The projects within this topic indicate handling recommendations to ensure conservation and formulate overall concepts for the ecological development of flood plains while also factoring in economic aspects. This meant that current research results on control factors, bioindication and the prognosis for living communities within the Elbe and its flood plains had to be brought together. Alongside this, a considerable proportion of the work involved indicating the benefits and costs of intervention as this is ultimately what influences political decisions. So, for example, the results of the research have also provided key bases for planning procedures for dyke relocation around Lenzen. It is the largest national project of this type to date, and has since been implemented.

Topic 3: Land usage within the river basin
Diffuse nutrient loading from agriculture is one of the key negative factors in the quality of the Elbe’s water today. The causes of this loading vary greatly from region to region due to the natural properties and usage structures within the Elbe river basin. The projects within this topic involved scientists examining how the water quality in the Elbe and thus also the North Sea could be improved through a modified use of the land or other agricultural procedures. They used water and matter balance models to show which measures are ecologically desirable and economically feasible for controlling land usage and the water balance in the Elbe basin. This was then used as a basis to develop and propose strategies for reducing water contamination. The conserving soil processing procedure is one worth particular mention: this management system has a positive effect on soil-physical, hydrological and biological properties, reduces soil loss and therefore also lowers the amount of phosphate entering the water.

Representation of the results in various media

The results of the joint Elbe ecology research programme were prepared in three types of media for varying needs:

Federal Institute of Hydrology (BfG)
Dr. Sebastian Kofalk
Mainzer Tor 1
56068 Koblenz, Germany
Tel.: +49(0)2 61/13 06-53 30
Fax: +49(0)2 61/13 06-53 33
E-mail: kofalk@bafg.de
Internet: www.bafg.de, elise.bafg.de
Funding reference: 0339542A
Ressource Wasser
Quick view