Interview with Christine Ehrenhuber, Pilot Case Study Steyr, Austria

Introduction:

The mountainous basin of the Steyr River is situated in the south-east of Upper Austria and is characterized by high water quality and the enormous abundance of water resources. The southern part of the basin belongs to the Kalkalpen National Park, an almost 21,000-hectare large forest wilderness and one of the last ancient forests in Central Europe. Compared to other Upper Austrian regions it is unique that many river stretches in the pilot area are in a natural status.

The river basin is subject to human activities, the river being a centre of touristic and leisure activities as well as a source for water power and other economic purposes. In the basin of Steyr River, the SPARE challenge was to make interests and conflicts over the use of water visible, to offer a platform for conflicting actors to come together and work on common development objectives and sustainable perspectives for the region.

Christine Ehrenhuber is project manager of the project case study, working as a facilitator for “Tatwort Sustainable Projects” – a communication agency with extensive experience in participatory planning in water management.

 

In continuation of a well-known format in Austria, the “River Dialogues”, a participatory process was implemented in the Steyr River basin: what were the most interesting elements of this process?

Participatory activities in relation to rivers have a longstanding tradition in Austria, focussing on raising awareness on a sensible and sustainable use as well as dealing with hazards – such as flood risks – connected to water.

SPARE participation activities in Steyr basin were focused on the role of associations, institutions and municipalities concretely influencing the development of the region. The participation process that had the local title “eVALU(E)ate the river Steyr” was based on various ecosystem services (ESS) the river provides. Together with stakeholders, we developed a method to both collect and evaluate the river’s ESS. We also used a simplified concept of ESS as the basis for a local survey where more than 800 people from the PCS region participated.

The survey results showed – even more clearly than expected – that people along the river Steyr are very aware of the “treasure” in front of their doors. In the stakeholder discussions, touristic activities were a central topic. The survey participants agree with the stakeholders in giving preference to human activities that do not conflict with environmental and water protection. A clear rebuff is given to an increase of activities that might endanger the environment in and around the river.

Which impact of the participatory process in the Steyr River basin is the most relevant – for you personally? 

The participatory process has – to some extent - contributed to the reduction of conflicts between participants. Personal relationships between stakeholders have been strongly influenced by a yearlong struggle of local economy against nature conservation in the question of the extension of a local skiing resort. The challenge was to facilitate a process to develop common goals for the river basin in an environment that tends to focus public discussion of interest groups around a conflict between those in favour of enforcing strong environmental protection and those reducing it in favour of human exploration of the river’s resources. Getting people together in the Representative Group Meetings helped to move discussions away from that and to give the opportunity to find common ground.  

What was the “secret ingredient” of the participatory process that was implemented in the frame of the SPARE project in Upper Austria?

A main element of the participatory process in the basin of Steyr River was the large scale online-survey where more than 800 people participated. This helped to “double-check” positions of representatives and it made the process of deciding development goals for the river really participatory. It also showed that opinions that were loudly voiced during RepG-meetings were not necessarily “representative” of the larger population’s opinion.

In preparation of this survey, it was crucial to give the stakeholders an opportunity to see and comment on the survey questionnaire and the test link beforehand and to integrate their feedback. This took away fears of a “biased” survey.

When we presented the results of the survey in the final event with stakeholders, we could really feel a positive change of people’s attitudes towards the participatory process and its goals. 

What’s the key finding of the participation process?

Both the stakeholder discussions and the survey give a clear picture of the opinion of the population of the Steyr river catchment: The river and its tributaries are a jewel that they want to preserve. The people clearly appreciate the beauty and the recreational value of the river in front of their doors.

 

Interview done by Stefen Schneiderbauer

Image copyright: Tatwort