4 mins

Development challenges for lake areas in the EU

Károly Fekete
Éva Geletáné Varga

In addition to the fact that 90% of the readily available freshwater on the Earth's surface is found in lakes, they also represent important areas for the protection of biodiversity and the conservation of seminatural ecosystems. The utilisation of lakes significantly changed in Europe in the second half of the 20th century, similarly to other developed areas of the world.

Traditionally, lakes were used mainly for fishing and navigation, but these functions changed as tourism and recreation became more important in welfare societies. In addition, lakes also have to meet the increased societal demand for water, for drinking, agricultural and industrial purposes.

Moreover, owing to their environmental characteristics, lakes and the associated ecosystems are also considered high-risk areas regarding the impacts of climate change.

A geographic feature of lakes arising from their physical characteristics is that they are often located at administrative boundaries, which has impacts not only on environmental and ecological dimensions, but also on social functions.

Many lakes serve as country borders or they belong to several administrative units (counties or regions) within the same country, circumstances which inevitably lead to institutional and administrative fragmentation. Therefore, it is difficult to govern and manage lakes in an integrated way based on cooperation and consensus even in terms of hydrology, environment, transport or tourism.

The World Lake Vision, revealed at the third World Water Forum in Japan in 2003, sets out the principles for sustainable use of lakes, including:

Policy development and decision-making for lake management should be based on sound science and the best available information.

Citizens and other stakeholders should be encouraged to participate meaningfully in identifying and resolving critical lake problems.

Good governance, based on fairness, transparency and empowerment of all stakeholders, is essential for sustainable lake use.

It is necessary to adapt to climate change as effectively as possible. It is essential to ensure that the sensitive environmental balance between social and economic activities related to the lakes is maintained. In addition, there is a need for social welfare and economic competitiveness.

For the effective integrated management of all these challenges, smart governance of lakes and their regions is required, which should be based on sound knowledge bases, as well as on institutional and social cooperation. However, in order to apply this territorial approach and to identify and manage problems in time, specific tools are required, and broad cooperation is needed at local, regional, national and EU levels.

There are several endogenous examples of integrated management of certain environmental and social needs of large lakes. These address some lake-management tasks carried out at local or regional level. In addition, tasks related to large lakes can even provide good examples of cross-border institutional cooperation.

For example, the water transport system of Lake Constance, crossing the borders of three countries, is based on institutional cooperation and resilience. At the same time, experiences show that strengthening institutional cooperation and collaboration, or promoting bottom-up initiatives, is not always enough to meet the challenges and development needs due to the specific ecological, environmental, social and economic characteristics of lakes. Addressing these challenges also requires external resources and territorial policy interventions in order to overcome administrative and institutional fragmentation and to establish a long-lasting community of interests.

Certain developmental aspects of large European lakes are not simply integrated territorial management issues, but they may also require higher-level interventions, even addressing national or EU interests, owing to the environmental value and social utility of lake areas

“For the EU territorial policy, which considers environmental values as a key asset for the future, the integrated development of European lakes can be a priority not only from an ecological point of view

At the same time, these interventions need integrated regional monitoring, including all related circumstances and relevant knowledge. With the help of thorough and comprehensive cost-benefit analyses, it can be proven that the cost of preventing ecological and/or socio-economic disasters is lower than the cost of the recovery required afterwards.

For the EU territorial policy, which considers environmental values as a key asset for the future, the integrated development of European lakes can be a priority not only from an ecological point of view, but also because of the services that lakes and their regions provide to society. In addition to the field of recreation, lakes provide a range of other services required for maintaining the functions of society.

As a result of the above mentioned specific challenges that European lakes are facing, the regional managers of Lake Balaton in Hungary, Lake Constance in Germany and Lake Vänern in Sweden, as stakeholders, decided to propose the spatial progress and integrated development opportunities of large lakes in the EU as a subject for ESPON targeted territorial analysis.

We intend to use the results of the ESPON LAKESproject, which started in autumn 2020, to make recommendations and proposals for EU spatial policymakers in order to promote the common integrated management of large lakes in Europe.

Lakes are special territories with special needs. Therefore, they require specific interventions, like other EU territories with geographic specificities (e.g.islands and mountains). The importance of specific interventions will increase in the future, with special regard to the environmental and social impacts of climate change

Károly Fekete is Researcher and Éva Geletáné Varga is project manager at the Lake Balaton Development Coordination Agencyr

This article appears in Rural areas: an eye to the future

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