I wanted to give nature a voice, and help find a fairer way of managing natural resources. Caring for nature is caring for people. Ecosystems are our life support, and rivers their lifeblood – I’ve always been fascinated by their power and how they shape our landscapes.

Gewaesserperle Wissbach (c) LukasBammatter

In the name of progress

Julia Brändle, Senior Expert in Freshwater & Energy at WWF Switzerland, grew up in Röthis, a small village on the Austrian side of the upper Rhine valley. Reluctant to become a doctor like her mother but still keen to help people, she settled on conservation, earning a PhD on global change and mountain ecosystems from ETH in Zürich.

Alpine rivers in Switzerland have suffered decades of development undertaken in the name of progress. Massive hydropower schemes in particular have transformed free-flowing rivers into reservoirs and regimented canals.

We want to bring back some balance by mitigating some of the worst impacts of the hydropower sector and protecting remaining value by restoring fish migration and water flows. Of course, there’s a cost but what we regain is invaluable!

Nature means business

For twenty years, the 1992 revision of Switzerland’s 1992 Federal Act on the Protection of Waters, which demanded river flow restoration by hydropower plants, went largely ignored, lost in debate around exemptions and what percentage of a company’s profits might be allocated to protection while still allowing a viable business.

“In 2012, the deadline for implementation arrived and WWF, together with other NGOs, won a court ruling against power company Misoxer Kraftwerke that stopped the government and the sector in its tracks. After that, cantons and power companies started taking nature seriously, and we began an out-of-court dialogue.”

Since then, through a round table process, and with a little inspiration from mother nature, WWF, power plants, communities, and cantonal administrations have been on a journey of trust and collaboration.

“We prepared well for negotiations, for instance by using GIS analysis to identify the most promising locations for flow restoration based on high ecosystem value and low power production impact. And then everyone went into the field to experience restoration in action – seeing flow returning to rivers really helped achieve consensus.

Now in 2019, many cantons hosting the country’s most significant hydropower plants have made amends but challenges remain, not least Switzerland’s decisions to reject nuclear power, meet ambitious emissions targets, and continue to subsidise hydropower in preference to lower impact wind and solar.

Helping where it matters

Participating in MAVA’s Leaders for Nature Academy has strengthened Julia’s desire to work internationally. She’s recently had the chance to visit Myanmar and encourage young civil servants in Naypyidaw, many of whom are women, to stand up for nature when reviewing multi-billion dollar hydropower investments from countries like China.

The Irrawaddy and the Salween are some of the world’s last free-flowing rivers and global hotspots for freshwater biodiversity but under huge development pressure. Myanmar’s journey with environmental legislation has only just begun but there’s also a very strong civil society movement and real public debate about whether some rivers are just too valuable to develop – it’s something Switzerland could learn from.

Find out more about Julia and WWF’s support for our action plan on Restoring and protecting rivers.

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