United to save Europe’s
longest river


The Volga is Europe’s longest river and home to one of the world’s best conserved delta wetlands. But threats from dams, reservoirs and hydropower stations mean that the survival of ‘Mother Volga’, as it is known in Russia, is increasingly in peril. Now, thanks to the CABRI-Volga project, this majestic river’s future is looking cleaner and brighter. What’s more, the project results could also be applied to other rivers facing similar problems.

Eight huge complexes comprising dams, reservoirs and hydroelectric facilities operate on the Volga. The result: what was once flowing water has become a chain of lakes. Unable to flush themselves out, these lakes are seriously polluted by industrial waste, sewage and agricultural run-off.

While polluted water discharge into the Volga Basin declined by a third during the last 15 years, water quality, and especially drinking water quality, remains high on the environmental agenda. None of the major cities in the Volga Basin is supplied with drinking water that complies with national and World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

If the Volga is to be rescued from this predicament, those seeking to bring about change must combine their efforts, resources and ideas and present a united front. While previous attempts to address individual problems had taken place, they were impeded by low levels of cooperation between academics and policy-makers, a dearth of cross-sectoral cooperation and a lack of civil society involvement.

It is here that the CABRI-Volga project comes in. Bringing together 17 partners from the public and private sector in Russia and seven EU Member States, the project facilitated cooperation and coordinated research on environmental risk management in the context of large river basins in the EU, Russia and the New Independent States (NIS).


‘We tried something that was rather unique’

The project was initiated when researchers from Russia contacted Rupprecht Consult Forschung und Beratung in Germany, which eventually took on the role of CABRI-Volga coordinator. The Russian team had become interested in the Volga through their involvement in an earlier project, ‘Volga Vision’, which was funded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and was keen to embark on new initiatives involving the river.

CABRI-Volga’s impressive results include policy recommendations, a research agenda for the future, a presentation to politicians, major international conferences and an exchange of researchers. ‘Our project didn’t carry out research as such; we coordinated researchers. The success really was that we tried something that was rather unique. We provided an opportunity for a dialogue between eastern and western researchers,’ says project coordinator Frank Wefering.

The policy recommendations are directed primarily at decisionmakers in Russia and the Volga Basin. But they could equally be applied to other river basins and other stakeholders. They illustrate the broad diversity of factors that must be considered in order to protect the Volga, and how they are interlinked. Some of these may not have been immediately obvious to actors approaching the problems with a limited overview of the threats. The creation of one over-arching list makes very evident the advantages of gathering so many stakeholders from different disciplines who ultimately share the same objective.

Recommendations include, for example: establishing an inventory of hydro-facilities and the risks they pose; enhancing institutional capacities in water governance; building an integrative transport strategy; enhancing the system of protected areas and nature reserves; building drinking water and wastewater plants; reforming licence and tax regulations to promote environmental performance; improving information-sharing; enhancing partnerships between stakeholders; and raising awareness and promoting EU-Russian cooperation.

The project also led to a research agenda for the future, addressing current gaps in knowledge. For example, research into the proces sing and supply of drinking water is inadequate, and is coupled with a shortage of scientific advice about good water governance. There is also a lack of multidisciplinary assessment of the risks of water-related disasters such as floods and droughts and loopholes in understanding of the risks from hydro-technical facilities for human health and ecology.


Changing perceptions…

The recommendations were not the only results to arise from 27 months of close cooperation and exchanges between some 150 experts from various stakeholder groups and scientific disciplines. Other achievements included three major conferences and researcher exchanges. Researchers from both the EU and Russia took part in the exchanges. Those from the West who spent time in Russia often reported back that their preconceived ideas about Russia being behind in some areas were challenged. According to the project coordinator, it gave them the opportunity to observe that in some cases, such as energy production in dams, they are just as far ahead as western Europe, if not more.

The CABRI-Volga team also succeeded in reaching Russian politicians through a political round table in Moscow and a small-scale information session in the Duma. These are the people that need to be most aware of the extent of the threats to the river basin, as well as how to deal with them.

... to work together

Some stakeholders did not believe initially that EU participation was necessary in order to save the Volga, and involving them was a major coup for the project team. The project partners placed great emphasis on the value of working with their opponents rather than around them.

One of objectives before work on the CABRI-Volga project got underway was to ensure that it left a legacy. There can be no doubt that this has been achieved. The network is in place and there is an eagerness among the partners to continue what the project started.