Towards a europeanwide label for Large Wild Rivers

Rivers and streams which have remained untouched and escaped any major changes to their natural shape (for example, from flood barriers, changed river channels, embankments, other alterations) and which have maintained  their crystal clear water are extremely rare in France and Europe. They should all be protected. However, current regulations, mainly those stemming from the European Water Framework Directive, are insufficient.
To counter the threats to wilderness rivers, most notably from unsustainable hydroelectric power projects, a group was formed in 2007 at the initiative of the WWF and ERN France.

The Wild Rivers program has two cornerstones: ‘the Fonds pour la protection des Rivières sauvages’ and ERN, a certified association under a 1901 French Law, approved for the protection of wilderness areas and  since 1989 a partner of the WWF. ERN works with public agencies and NGOs, the Fonds pour la protection des Rivières sauvages, was established to develop partnerships with businesses and raise private funds.

ERN and its french Partner  has successfully implemented the label “Wild River Site”  for small rivers (< Strahler 5) in France. The label was developped in cooperation with the french Ministery for the Environnement and the scientific community. So far (2023) more the 30 river sections have been (re-)labelised all over in France.

The French label “Site Rivière sauvage” for small rivers is co-owned by ERN  and the “Fonds pour la conservation des rivières sauvages”. The Network of labeled rivers in France is managed by the NGO ARRS.

In 2019 ERN made study to adapted the French label to make it suitable for other European countries and large rivers. In cooperation with the WWF in Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Switzerland, ERN has looked at applying the label to alpine rivers.

Starting in 2023, ERN will promote the elaboration of a europeanide label for large rivers based on its experience Wirth the French label for small rivers and the case studies on Alpine rivers.

Map showing the pilot projects for a new europeanwide label for large Wild Rivers     

International partners :

          project lead by ERN

  • Ammerin cooperation with the WWF Germany
  • Lechin cooperation with the WWF Austria
  • Chamuera, in cooperation with the WWF Switzerland
  • Beverine, expected to be the first river to be labelled, in cooperation with the WWF Switzerland and the Commune of Bevers.
  • Soča, in cooperation with the WWF Adria
  • Viosha, (Albania) in cooperation with  EURONATURpproject lead by the Fond Rivières sauvages / ARRS
  • Artikutza : with the University of Bilbao (Dr. Arturo Elosegi) and San Sebastian Municipality (Departement of Biodiversity and Environnement)
  • Wartoise : with local autority, the french part is already labelled.
  • Owenduff : with NGOs (fishermen).

The Wild Rivers Chart and an Evaluation Grid

In 2011 and 2012, a chart filled with technical and scientific elements was prepared by a technical committee with assistance from our Scientific Council, composed of researches and scientists working in various institutions and regions. The chart, and an evaluation grid including 9 fields and 47 social-ecological criteria, created in cooperation with french scientist and experts, allows the unspoilt nature of an entire body of water or a minimum of 10km to be measured. It also measures the commitment and good governance of local actors and the potential risks posed by increased numbers of visitors to a fragile natural environment. For now, only medium-sized waterways are concerned.
Following on from the creation of this chart, a reference tool was established to set up the « Wild Rivers Site » label. This tool gives the details of the label acquisition process as well as providing recognition for the exceptionally unspoilt nature of the river in question and to guarantee the commitment of local actors to its conservation. Meanwhile, research work was carried out with the help of the Ecole Centrale de Paris, that showed that the “natural, unspoilt capital” of a waterway can be a factor for sustainable local development, making use of ecosystem services that are at least as beneficial as the construction of yet another hydroelectric power station.

The Wild Rivers Label

The label is a high-level instrument for the protection and development of the region that acquires it, strengthening its image among various populations. It is certified by Afnor Certification, after a technical audit of the application file and a visit to the site of the river basin to ensure the assessment criteria for wilderness and governance (the Chart) are respected by the applicant (Regional Nature Park, local authority, river association, etc.).
The label is awarded on condition that a conservation actions plan is established and spread over a period of time. Today, it consists of 3 levels, with a fourth envisaged that would correspond to optimum wilderness across all European rivers.
It is a simple collective stamp of approval, with no regulatory value. It is not dependent on any lawful document or official benchmark. It is a reflection of the desire of local authorities to promote the exemplary work carried out to effectively protect their remarkable river.