Ulrich Eichelmann can tell the story of almost any water stream in Europe that is worth knowing. When this dam was built, when that hydropower plant was put out of activity, where should salmons be, and where have eels become scarce… You just ask and see what happens. To be fair, he has been working on European rivers for the past 30 years or so of his life. Helmets on, paddles out. Rapid(s) interview ahead…
Ulrich, you have been defending European rivers for the past 30 years of your life, lately leading the charge against hydropower stations on Balkan rivers with RiverWatch. Thank you for taking the time to introduce us the cause, and we hope you’re not too wet from spending all this time in and around water.
Plan A: What made you passionate about rivers and dams?
Ulrich Eichmann: I grew up in a little village in North Rhein-Westphalia, Germany. Since I was a kid I was interested in nature and especially birds. Most of the time I ran along our little river, the Altenau, to catch trout with my hands, try to find nests of kingfishers or build huts in willow trees along the river. For a lot of my fellow village people I was a bit weird, I guess. Some of them called me “Hans guck in die Luft” (“Jonny look in the air”) because I was always screening the sky to spot some birds.
Then, in 1985 a dam was built upstream of my village and the little river disappeared. That´s when I started a campaign to remove that dam. In 2015 my little river was freed again, the dam lake is gone and the fish can migrate up and down again.
In principle, I think I like the dynamic of rivers, their diversity. Whenever you come to a living river, it looks different. Every flood changes the landscape, produces new land, new gravel banks here, a tree in the river there. And of course the different species, all those trouts, kingfishers, dippers…
Later on, I studied landscape architecture. During those years, I moved to Vienna (because my girlfriend “forced me” to). There, I got in touch with the Danube floodplains east of the city. After I had finished the university I worked for WWF Austria from 1991 to 2007. In those 17 years, I spent most of my time fighting against dam projects and for the protection of rivers. One of the bigger achievements of that time was the stopping of the dam plans on the Danube in Austria and the establishment of the Danube National Park, instead.
From 2007-2011 I coordinated the international campaign “Stop Ilisu”, a campaign against the Ilisu dam project on the Tigris river in Turkey. As a consequence, in 2009 Germany, Austria and Switzerland, international banks and most of the international companies resigned from the project and cancelled the contract with Turkey. However, Turkey continued the construction on their own, ignoring all international advice and recommendations.
In 2012 I founded the NGO Riverwatch, I have been the C.E.O. of this organisation since. It was around then that the first ideas came up to do something for Balkan rivers.
P.A: What is your first memory as a child of nature conservation?
U.E: Not sure… Maybe it was when my father and I built nest boxes for little birds like tits. Later, in my teenage years, I organised events to create breeding places for kingfishers along our rivers, and I became more political in my actions. For example, I fought our municipality, because they wanted to drain wetlands in our area. We won, the drainage was stopped and the whole area is under protection now.
P.A: What is going on in the Balkan rivers that deserve everyone’s attention?
U.E: It is important to understand that the Balkan rivers are different to “our rivers” in the rest of Central Europe. First of all, I would say they are incredibly beautiful, their crystal clear water, the waterfalls, the green forests around, the islands, the pools you can swim in… Technically speaking they are in a natural or near-natural state, a situation that is long gone in countries like Germany, Austria, UK, France etc. They are full of fish, insects and birds. They are actually like a “river oasis” within our continent. Whenever you want to see what a river looks like, come to see the Vjosa, the Una, the Neretva, Drina, Moraca, Sava … And in a lot of areas, the people still live with the rivers and not against them like most of us do. Living with the river means they use the water directly for their cattle, gardens, for fishing and more and more for creating income through offering fly fishing and rafting opportunities or just by offering accommodation for those who want to enjoy the beauty.
P.A: What is the importance of environmental crime in global climate change?
U.E: Actually, the climate change debate is widely misused to destroy nature faster than ever before. Of course, climate change is a fact and it is happening. And it is important to do something against it. But you have to do the right things. What happens today is that “they” are selling the destruction of nature as a tool to stop global warming. Actually, they want us to accept the killing of nature and species for a higher good, which is the climate. That is rubbish. The industry and other related lobby groups have understood the chances that arise with this discussion: you can build dams now that were impossible to build 10-15 years ago since hydro has a green image. But simply because dams don´t emit Co2, doesn´t make them good. Same would be if you would argue, smoking is healthy because it doesn´t affect the liver. The only real solution to fight global warming is to reduce our consumption dramatically.
P.A: How do we find legal solutions in places where rule of law can be gotten around?
U.E: I do believe in a mix of protest, awareness and legal actions. There is not one single tool to save the Balkan rivers. But the legal fight is a very important one. We haven’t used that instrument as much as we should have up until now. The thing is, you have to file lawsuits in those countries and file complaints to international bodies like the EU or some conventions. This legal mix can lead to stopping the funding of projects (like it happened in the Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia) or even in halting a project like in Albania, where the administrative court ruled in our favour and against the Vjosa dam case.
I am convinced that we need this legal part much more in our campaign. Of course, the lawyers and legal experts need money, so it is all about financing them.
P.A: What has led you to fight against the excesses of environmentalism and/or so-called green energies?
U.E: For 17 years I was working for WWF in Austria. There I realized that after the year 2000 real nature conservation, species protection etc became more and more irrelevant in our own community. Not only in WWF, but in all NGOs. There were more and more “climate experts” and less and less nature people employed in those NGOs. That changed the attitude in these organisations. Suddenly it wasn´t important if a species was put at risk through hydropower plants or too many windmills. “But its good for the climate!” was the killing argument that I have heard more than once. That’s when I decided to produce a film about the misuse of the global warming issue. Climate Crimes was the product and presented in 2012.
P.A: What is the environmental achievement you are most proud of?
U.E: I worked for more than 5 years on the establishment of the Danube National Park here in Austria. The government wanted to build a big dam there, instead. In 1996 the National Park was officially declared. We have stopped many dam projects in Austria as well as in other parts of Europe and it is nice to go to these places and think that I did a bit to preserve this.
I am also proud of the development in my home village. After a 27 year long fight, my home river – Altenau – is free flowing again, a big reservoir is gone and now the whole length of the river will be restored.
P.A: Is it possible, in the context of an ever-growing population, to secure enough space for enough nature on our planet?
U.E: Honestly, I don´t know. Growth is THE problem for our planet, including population growth. But if we would use the space on Earth wisely, I am sure we could keep at least parts of nature. That starts with the space in our surrounding. Why do we need to use so many pesticides, why do we use our land so intensively, without letting space for hedges, trees, bushes… Anyway, we should start with our area, our hometowns. I think if more people would get active to plant hedges, plant trees in the empty landscape, extend and intensify farmland… we would get a more colourful landscape.
P.A: Finally, what do you say to young river defenders eager to make a difference?
U.E: Go for it, don´t think too much!
Follow our campaign for rivers on www.plana.earth and contribute to Ulrich’s fight by making a donation or offering your time to participate to this global action. These projects won’t cancel themselves… Jump in the water!
Ulrich Eichelmann is a German ecologist and conservationist who has been living in Vienna for 29 years. He worked for the WWF Austria for more than 17 years until 2007, focusing on river conservation and fighting dam building. Between 2010 and 2012 he produced the documentary Climate Crimes. In 2012, he founded the Vienna-based conservation organization River Watch – a society for the protection of rivers. In November 2014, he was awarded the Great Binding Prize for Nature Conservation and in June 2015 he received the Wolfgang Staab Prize for Nature Conservation.