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A German state plans to earmark a part of the Rhine river as a special protection zone to meet EU requirements on preserving the natural habitat. But the move has elicited mixed reactions.
The Rhine is one of Germany's most picturesque waterways
Germany's most treasured waterway for both tourists and Germans alike was treated like a stepchild during the first three-quarters of the 20th century.
From the upper reaches of the river in Switzerland and southern Germany to its delta in the Netherlands, the Rhine was used as a dumping ground by both industries and cities.
But it wasn't until 1986 when the Sandoz chemical spill in Basel, Switzerland, happened, that measures were at last taken to clean up one of Europe's most scenic rivers. Two decades ago, it would have been unthinkable to eat fish and other marine animals caught in the river. Nowadays, migratory species such as salmon have not only reappeared but are surviving in the Rhine.
Klaus Markgraf-Maué a Rhine River expert from NABU, a German conservation group, is pleased that even fishermen are coming back.
"Everyone along the Rhine who is engaged in environmental aspects is proud to have them back because it's a good sign concerning the water quality," Markgraf-Maué said.
Satisfying EU requirements
The Rhine, Germany's largest river, needs to be better protected
While environmentalists are happy that the Rhine is in such good condition and that fish like salmon and shad are returning to its waters, the EU wants further protection for the waterway.
In 1992, lawmakers in Brussels passed the Flora, Fauna, Habitat directive, or FFH. By signing on to the FFH, EU countries promise to preserve and protect natural habitats, including rivers, lakes and streams, within some four million square kilometers (1.5 million square miles) of Europe.
But deciding what exactly should be protected is a matter of national or local sovereignty. In Germany, individual states are held responsible. The environmental ministry of North-Rhine Westphalia has proposed to set aside 30 percent of the Rhine River under the FFH directive.
"The purpose is to determine and create the habitats for rare fish," said Markus Fliege, a ministry spokesperson. "We have marked out a few fish sanctuaries that we believe and that experts also believe to be sufficient and that will protect and sustain the habitats in question."
Too little or too much?
The Rhine is Germany's most important thoroughfares for ships
For the time being, the proposal of North Rhine-Westphalia's government's looks set to be approved by the EU. But it has been criticized by shipping companies on the one hand as being excessive, and on the other by environmentalists who say it doesn't go far enough.
"The scientific advisors of the EU have hinted that our recommendations will be accepted," Fliege said. "We have heard that some environmentalists as well as some business associations are not 100 percent satisfied with this. But this simply confirms that our solution lies in-between and is a sensible one."
Politics is almost always a matter of compromise, and the current center-right government in Düsseldorf prides itself on the fact that its proposal goes further than that of its predecessors which included the environmental Greens.
Nevertheless, NABU expert Markgraf-Maué, who jointly heads a project to promote the habitat along and on Germany's longest river, called "Living Rhine", points to holes in the proposals.
"It covers only a small part of the habitat," he said. "The most important part that is missing the central part of the river, the shipping channel itself, because nowadays we have only parts on both sides, the river banks."
According to conservationists, the situation in the central part of the Rhine is where the crux of the problem is. Fish species that live on the bottom of the shipping channels will pay the price and lose valuable habitats should the river need to be dredged in the future -- and this may be unavoidable.
Rows of cars on a cargo ship on the Rhine
But even in areas other than the shipping channels, the Rhine flows through a man-made straitjacket of embankments and concrete walls, mostly past cities and towns. And it's the areas where these walls are of little use that should be given priority.
"The goal of our project, 'Living Rhine,' is to put concrete out of the bank and to have more space for dynamics along the river," Markgraf-Maué said.