Europe’s largest river restoration project to undo 500 years of world-renowned Dutch water management is making profound changes across the entire landscape, bringing benefits to wildlife and people alike.
The Meuse or Maas, the rewilded Dutch-Belgian border river. The colorful vegetation newly appearing in the area includes many species from more calcareous upstream regions, bringing exceptional flora to the lowlands of Belgium and the Netherlands. Image credit: rivierparkmaasvallei.eu
In the heart of Western Europe, on the Dutch-Belgian border, a major habitat restoration project was launched in 2007. The aim of the Border Meuse (or “Grensmaas”) Project is to restore, to its natural state, a 45-kilometer (28-mile) stretch of the river, which originates in the Ardennes as the Meuse, and reaches the Dutch plain at Maastricht, where it is called the Maas. The resulting 1200-hectare RivierPark Maasvallei (Meuse Valley River Park) on the border between the Netherlands and Flanders in Belgium has by now turned into one of the most attractive destinations for green tourism, also bringing many other advantages.
The Dutch-Belgian project, which started 30 years ago, achieved the rewilding by regulating the river into an unregulated one, The Guardian reported. The 45-kilometer stretch of the Meuse was converted at a cost of €550 million, with planning beginning in 1990 and the finishing touches due to be completed in 2027. But the park, created in a natural habitat, already attracted two million visitors last year, generating nearly €1 billion in revenue for the region.
A pilot project for river widening was carried out in 2000 near Meers. The results speak for themselves. Image credit: Herman Gielen / Vincent Fissette, Avisum
The Rewilding Europe network, which is organized to restore natural habitats from the Danube delta to Swedish Lapland, notes in a summary that the Dutch-Belgian border river rehabilitation is a prime example of how such a green investment can be an economic success story. In addition to the ecological and tourism-related benefits, the project has also significantly reduced the risk of floods that used to cover the region over hundreds of square kilometers even in the 1980s and 1990s.
Furthermore, the construction works on the riverbed and the floodplain generated significant revenues for local sand and gravel mining companies, and the increased biodiversity boosted agriculture in the region, which has now typically shifted to organic farming.
Construction works on the riverbed and the floodplain. Image credit: rivierparkmaasvallei.eu
A crucial part of the project was the separation of nature and agriculture by buying up farms in the river basin and restoring them to their natural state. According to The Guardian, farmers were convinced not only by the generous compensation, but also by the fact that the floods had made it much harder to farm the land adjacent to the river. While the loss of agricultural jobs proved to be a temporary hardship, the development of tourism and the recreation infrastructure is said to have created an incredible amount of new jobs. Moreover, property values have increased by more than 10 percent compared to similar areas in the two countries. Nijmegen, where the project was launched, was named European Green Capital in 2018.
While today the landscape may seem to have never seen a dam, every square meter of the ecological unit is the result of precise planning, according to a summary published on the RivierPark Maasvallei website. The reclamation was preceded by a detailed analysis of the floods of the past 250 years, with the changing shoreline and floodplain designed to match the water levels, also taking into account the cartographic records of past centuries.
Border Meuse a revolutionary project whereby flood protection, nature restoration and gravel extraction go hand in hand. Image credit: Erwin Christis/Rewilding Europe
In addition to the construction works to shape the river basin, the project has removed tens of thousands of kilometers of fencing and reintroduced a significant number of sturgeon, beavers and otters to ensure the sustainability of the ecosystem.
The woodland flora is maintained by free-roaming animals such as Galloway cows and Polish konik horses that graze along the riverbanks. People are free to walk the length of the river along a tangle of footpaths.
Populations of fish migrating from the North Sea, such as Atlantic salmon and sea trout, have also appeared in the river section.
The ecosystem created by landscape restoration has thus allowed fishing to resume to a limited extent, while the river products also include beef and horse meat products, as well as herbs and other vegan products.
By allowing natural processes to take over again, the area is changing from a man-made landscape to one where nature and wildlife thrive. Image credit: Kris Van Looy/Rewilding Europe
The following video gives an idea of the incredible results of the habitat reconstruction. A real paradise has been (re)created.
The project is a great reminder that nature isn’t picky – it will quickly reconquer its old realm, given we allow it to.