Social pitfalls for river restoration : How public participation uncovers problems with public acceptance

As in several other infrastructure sectors—highly popular German examples are the protests concerning “Stuttgart 21” or Munich airport—the people’s “new voice” is severely inhibiting the enforcement progress of common legislation in the water management sector, in particular the European Water Framework Directive (2000; EU-WFD). With the launch of the EU-WFD, the European Union is forcing serious changes in watersheds to reach a “good ecological status”. However, although affirmatively described by experts, not all of these changes are appreciated by local communities. According to Connif (2014), 75 % of river restoration projects did not reach their minimal goals due to the lack of active stakeholder involvement. To prevent this, a comprehensive consideration of social aspects is essential for a sustainable implementation success of river restoration projects in the German water management sector. In this paper, local stakeholders’ individual acceptance and the overall public acceptance of the project to ecologically improve the Emscher River’s mouth in the context of the Emscher Conversion (“Emscherumbau”) and its relation to certain steps of action in the project (including public participation measures) will be discussed as a case study. To our knowledge, no other research has been conducted so far combining the advantages of qualitative stakeholder interviews and a comprehensive media analysis to get an individual insight into the attitude of different stakeholder groups and to consistently identify snapshots of the public attitude during the course of the project. At first sight the project has high potential for conflicts because of drastic alterations of the current environment, intense construction works and soil transport activities, a relatively dense settlement in close proximity as well as a community that is experienced in asserting their rights. But although public participation was basically limited to information and formal consultation, the local attitude towards the ecological improvement of the Emscher River’s mouth is overall positive.


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