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"An opportunity to compare experiences and formulate recommendations capable of being heard and accepted by a wider circle of actors "

Thomas Galewski, project manager at the Tour du Valat (France), was a member of the delegation present in China, for our conference devoted to rivers and biodiversity. He was able to meet the IFGR’s international experts and many Chinese actors of the Yellow River and water resources, with the Yellow River Conservancy Commission. The following is a review of our work with this specialist on Mediterranean wetlands, whose studies include monitoring and evaluating the state of biodiversity conservation in these areas.


What has stood out for you most at the conference on rivers and biodiversity organised by IFGR in China?

I was very interested in meeting IFGR’s panel of experts and working with them for five days on this topic. I’ve returned with a great deal of optimism. It’s an original initiative to have gathered people with such varied and specific competences to dialogue on biodiversity, a subject outside the core knowledge of their expertise. This comparison of a multitude of international experiences relating to food, economics, biodiversity, energy, urbanism, etc., makes it possible to formulate recommendations more likely to be listened to and accepted by a wider range of actors than if the proposals had come from people specialised only in conservation.

Regarding the Yellow River and China in particular, like everyone else I was impressed by their capacity to carry out fast and efficient actions. In my opinion, it’s good news that a country as powerful as China has become aware of the climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis, since it can take immediate, large scale actions and, I hope, it will be able to export its good practices, especially to Africa where its presence is strong.

Regarding your experience of wetlands in the Mediterranean basin, in comparison with other experiences from around the world presented during this conference, what do you see as being the main challenges for biodiversity and rivers?

Parc naturel régional de Camargue, Arles, Marais de Meyranne – France

Whether in the Mediterranean basin, which is surrounded by different countries with very varied socioeconomic characteristics, or in Asia, the problems are finally the same, although they are not expressed in the same way. The Yellow River suffers from excess sediments, contrary to many Mediterranean rivers, but the threats against biodiversity are similar. The first is the impact of large dams on the functioning of rivers; they reduce discharges downstream and are an obstacle for migrating fish. Channelling and diking rivers also leads to problems since these infrastructures were built without taking into account natural flood plains, riparian forests and alluvial wetlands. These habitats have often been destroyed or greatly reduced whereas they are the main reservoirs of biodiversity for rivers and the best means of mitigating floods.

Pollution phenomena are also ubiquitous and poorly evaluated. A fourth aspect concerns the protection of endemic species that have developed in the watershed. In the Yellow River basin, one fish species in five is endemic. When developing the river, efforts must be made to preserve this heritage of biodiversity. Lastly, we don’t understand rivers enough in their entirety, from their sources to the sea, when it comes to solving environmental problems or designing an infrastructure, a point made very clear during the conference. When one builds a dam that holds back sediments, there’s an impact on the coastline where the river flows into the sea; when cutting vegetation at the source, the river is threatened downstream. The Yellow River seems to be an exception because the Yellow River Conservancy Commission has succeeded in taking an approach that covers more than 5,400 km of its course!

During these exchanges, the issue of the need for international cooperation to share knowledge and knowhow was raised with great emphasis. What could your research institute provide to the managers of the Yellow River? 

Port Saint Louis du Rhône, golfe de Fos (France)

I think they lack means to monitor and evaluate biodiversity. A biodiversity observatory could allow them to identify factors of anthropological origin that impact habitats, and to evaluate the efficiency of the conservation actions performed. Restoration actions are being carried out in China (wetlands; reforestation, etc.) but we didn’t see any indicators for measuring their results regarding the preservation of animal and plant species. I think that the Tour du Valat could provide this competence. We have already provided it in Tunisia and Turkey.

We could also assist them in programmes to restore and manage coastal and alluvial wetlands, which give more space to the river. Our concern has always been to manage wetlands that support as much biodiversity as possible while maintaining human activities. It’s the quest for synergy between a river, its economic exploitation and maintaining its ecological functions, thus biodiversity.

2020 will be an important year for biodiversity, with the next World Conservation Congress at Marseille and the Convention on Biological Diversity in October in China. What do you expect to happen, and what can we do together?

Let’s allow nature to take the lead there where it’s possible and give space back to wetlands linked to rivers and the coast. That’s the message we want to make known with IFGR. It’s the mechanisms of nature-based solutions that often provide efficient and inexpensive means of action. We have the example of the Mediterranean which is a “hot spot” on three levels: its biodiversity is rich but threatened; human pressure is intense and affects available water resources; and it’s a region very sensitive to climate change. The experience we’ve acquired from this region can help others.

Another message that was often heard during the conference is the need to reconcile biodiversity and human well-being. The aim is not to place nature under a protective dome, or to dominate it. We mustn’t forget that nature is a dynamic assemblage that will keep evolving with the impact of climate change. We have to find the best balance possible.

Pictures: Tour du Valat / Camille Moirenc

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