The mere mention of water issues can cause experts in international conflict management to wrinkle their foreheads. And it can bring politicians into serious discussions of future armed conflicts. But what it seldom does is create excitement within a newsroom about a story for tomorrow’s newspaper. In Europe, journalists don’t have a lot of chances to write about the problems of water management involving the continent’s many river systems. The only time water stories seem to be wanted—and then everyone wants them immediately—is when a river overflows in some spectacular manner, as it happened in 2002 with the Elbe River as it moved through Germany on its way toward the North Sea.

Some 20 years ago this situation was very different. After a huge accident on the Rhine River, when a fire occurred at one of the Basel chemical factories of Sandoz (now Novartis) and thousands of liters of poisoned water flew into the river, water coverage was a priority. With a huge number of fish dying after this accident, years of recovery were needed. And what was involved in that changed a lot about European water management.

An international commission for the protection of the Rhine River (Internationale Kommission zum Schutz des Rheins, IKSR) was founded in 1950. It was a small and not very efficient body that worked hard on multilateral treaties and, in 1963, it was transformed into an entity examining international water rights. But still the commission had not too much to do. After the Sandoz accident in 1986 that changed. The staff was doubled and action taken by the four countries—Switzerland, Germany, France, the Netherlands—involved with the commission was accelerated, including the efforts to clean up the Rhine.

As a result of this work, IKSR formulated environmental goals but let the member-countries determine what actions to take to reach them. To this day, this goal-setting mechanism is the principle in every international environmental contract, whether it involves actions to reduce poisonous inflows into a river or to try to bring salmon back. The IKSR salmon initiative was an important news story for a few years—at least in the regions around the river. And after several seasons of devastating high waters on the Rhine in the early and mid-1990’s, a new round of protective actions was undertaken.

The lessons from the Rhine experiences are important ones. Countries near the origins of the river can do a lot of harm to the people on its lower parts. They can do so when they build power stations or many houses on the riverside and then dam the river. Or when they let their farmers use the agricultural space around the river and dam this land, too, which means there is not enough space left for an overflow. The damage can be immense. (The cost for Germans from the Elbe flood was about nine billion euros.) Damage can be done, too, when the countries at the river’s beginning take too much water out of the river.

These kinds of conflict involving water usage happen along every river system in Europe. But attempts to manage them occurred first along the Rhine. Since Europe’s eastern edges have opened, new river commissions have been founded along the Elbe, the Oder, and the Danube.

For those journalists inclined to write about these water issues, the gathering of information is relatively easy. The river management entities are generally competent nongovernmental organizations. For example, an institute—the Aueninstitut in Rastatt, Germany—works mostly on the protection of natural swamps as flood support areas. But the problem is that most of the time the broader public just doesn’t show much interest in water topics. And the newspapers, which are dealing with economic pressures and reduced space for news on their pages, often cannot be convinced to publish something about water, absent a flood.

Reporting on the Elbe Flood

But when a disaster does occur—like what happened on the Elbe—a journalist has to work on many stories over a longer period of time to provide responsible coverage of such an event. After the Elbe flood, for example, I reported stories about climate change, while other journalists wrote about particular weather situations that made this disaster possible. For the first time in my reporting experience, coverage of this event enabled me to write about the loss of space for the river—about the consequences that come with covering the space near the river with concrete— which makes floods happen even faster. I was also able to weave these various topics together for readers.

After the flood, a high-water law was prepared by the environmental ministry in Germany. One of the important aspects of this proposed law was that any new buildings in overflow areas would not be granted building permits and agricultural land near the rivers would be more restricted. But local governments in Germany are working to block this from becoming law. While all of this is taking place, there is very little interest among editors at my newspaper to have reporters track this story and inform our readers why, two years after the flood, this most important reform is still not happening.

Environmental topics were not the only angles to follow after this big flood. There was the follow-the-money story to be told as those who received funds to help the flood victims were spending it. But how? There was the lack of cooperation between the local and federal government officials—and the implications of this—to report on. It was clear that in the wake of the flood there is a need to reform how disaster relief is handled. Though it is a complicated issue— with cities and nongovernmental organizations also involved in handling the funds—coverage of this important topic is quite limited. In fact, two years later, many of these issues remain unresolved. And now it is even harder to get these topics back into the news, despite a huge ongoing debate about federalism reform in Germany.

What we think of as news today, and how we report on it, is a natural enemy to a topic like rivers in Europe. These are complicated issues with high relevance to people’s lives but with no immediate public annoyance to bring the issues to the surface. The only time these topics have a chance to surface are during slow news times, like in high summer when everybody is on vacation or at Easter and Christmas, when nobody is in the mood to read the paper. But if, as a reporter, you keep your eye focused on these issues, when the news slot is available, the story will be ready. And sometimes even in such a slow news cycle, the public can be well informed by what are not popular but are complicated issues and critical ones to bring to their attention.

Dagmar Dehmer works as an environmental journalist for the Berlinbased daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.

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