Social-ecological systems and freshwater ecology
The Youth Network for River Action makes a big splash for water protection. But what exactly do we need to protect and why?
What role do people play in the water ecosystem?
On closer inspection, it is difficult to describe freshwater ecosystems as an independent entity from humans. People live on freshwater and have a reciprocal relationship with it. Humans have always tried to take advantage of freshwater - e.g. by optimising irrigation, transport routes, fishing, or using freshwater as momentum for mill wheels and turbines - while at the same time attempting to limit the disadvantages associated with freshwater environments, e.g. danger of flooding. Over the centuries, this has led to freshwater influencing our way of life. Our cities mostly arose on the banks of rivers, and today whole tourist regions are dependent on them. We like to be by the water while jogging, cycling, or rollerblading. However, people have influenced rivers, lakes and streams. Major technical changes through engineering and industrialisation led to comprehensive waterway modification and construction. We now know that we not only gained land, expanded shipping lanes, and protected settlements against flooding, but that we also destroyed many important functions of freshwater bodies.
What problems need to be solved?
It's not just a question of which animal species a straightened river still provides habitat for. The problems also affect humans, such as when a flood wreaks terrible havoc because too little natural floodplain exists along the river, or if in the summer a lake overturns because too many nutrients from agriculture promote the growth of algae. The important interdependence between people and water needs to be taken into account in order to find solutions to the problems. If we want to reverse the changes to freshwater environments through restoration, then we must also make the associated changes in their use. This means that we question our habits, water use and demand, and valuation of freshwater through discussion and redefinition.
Take action! Tools for freshwater ecology and social-ecological systems
There are numerous ways to deal with freshwater ecosystems. Maybe you know a biology or chemstry teacher who can examine water samples with you? Here, we want to present you with alternative ways to explore rivers!
New: What is a wild river?
What are wild rivers? And how can we find out more about them? This module introduces you to wild rivers. It does so with instructions that enable you to take the first steps towards the identification of a wild river. Maybe there is a wild river in your home region? Or you saw one during vacations? With this module, you can learn more about this rare kind of ecosystem!
Kayaking is a great way to get in contact with a river in its purest state. The most amazing thing about kayaking is the new perspective you gain while floating down the river just above its surface. Since it takes some time to get used to the situation, at first you won’t actually take notice of your surroundings but rather feel the rush of the moment while running down a rapid! Even a very small rapid is quite a challenge in the beginning and gives you an idea of how much power lies within the element you're trying to get to know!
Download the module "kayaking" (PDF).
Culinary Water Protection
A living freshwater ecosystem is rich in fish. Anglers and fishermen know which fish are present in your freshwater body. For sure you can find someone at the local fishing club or fishing store who can tell you about the fish species. You can simply ask whether earlier there were less or more fish in your area, and which species belong to which freshwater body.
A living freshwater body is rich in fish. Start with a brainstorm: What do you think - how many fish species are found in your lake or river? Do you know a few of them by name?
Now it's time to ask the experts in the field to complete your list: anglers and fishermen know which fish occur in your freshwaters. For sure you can find someone at the local fishing club or fishing store who can tell you about the fish species. You can simply ask whether earlier there were less or more fish in your area, and which species belong to which freshwater body! Of course you can telephone, but it's best just to visit a river, boathouse, or a fishing shop!
You shouldn't buy or eat all species available in a shop or restaurant. Some of them are heavily overfished. Other species however, are very numerous and in some cases, it is even encouraged or required to catch them. Often however, these fish are not the so-called "game fish" that people normally like to eat. At worst, the bonier fish don't land on your plate, but rather end up in the garbage. If the water in your lake or river is clean enough to eat the fish caught there in good conscience, it may therefore be a special experience to prepare a dish from the local fish which are native to your area. With a few tricks you can conjure up a tasty soup from species such as lead, roach, silver bream, rudd, ide and bleak. Here's a recipe made available for the Big Jump Challenge from Gbr in Berlin, that you can use with the targeted fish:
If you get to know the species of fish in your river or lake, but would rather not eat them, you can instead draw or paint a poster with "your" fish.
When rainwater seeps, it is filtered through soil. We can simulate similar processes to purify water. Learn something about the process of water filtration in a hands-on way, and get a first impression of how river water can be treated. This experiment will introduce you to one of the many steps of water filtration. Beyond this, the experiment offers a way to discuss the importance of clean water for society. What are the processes in nature where filtration happens? Why are these natural processes insufficient today? What can we do to improve the situation?
If you have the opportunity to organize a visit to a local water treatment facility, this would provide you with even more insights.
At a river which has been heavily modified, we can play detective. To do this, you need an old and a recent map of your river. Compare both maps with each other:
Where has the river been straightened?
What has been moved other than the tributaries and meanders? Fields? Forests? Settlements?
How might the landscape have looked when it still flowed freely and was unmodified? Maybe you feel like drawing a picture!
Now try to find for yourself, a spot where there might have been an old branch of the river. This works best if the area along the river is easily accessible. Perhaps you can find a place on the map where a pathway or walk-dike is located. Otherwise, ask a person with local knowledge whether they can accompany you, e.g. a city guide, an employee from an authority, or someone from a local nature conservation organisation.
Submit your results!
Culinary Water Protection: You can send us a short film or a report about your excursion to a local fishery, photos of your cooking event or a poster with your local species of fish and what you found out about them.
Water Filtration: Send us pictures of your water filtration experiment, and also a resolution your group made to take personal responsibility for water quality by changing one small thing in your everyday routine! Perhaps you can get your partner team to also make such a resolution!
Meander-Detectives: Send us a report or photos of your work with the maps and of your excursion to find the meander. In case you haven’t looked for it in the field, you can submit photos of your drawings of how the river had looked like when it was still allowed to flow freely.
Try out more River Action Tools!
Back to the toolbox overview and pick out another interesting topic!