| The case of the River Scheldt Estuary (The Netherlands)
EU Nature legislation foresees a mandatory compensation mechanism for activities that have a significant effect on a Natura 2000 site and its conservation objectives. However, even such a strong legal mechanism has not been able to force the Dutch Government into compliance with the law. The initial damage to the 42.000 ha large protected area was caused in 1997 by the dredging of the main traffic channel to the Antwerp Harbour in the Scheldt estuary. Since then, the Dutch Government has been under the legal obligation to compensate for the damage inflicted to the habitats and species of this unique site in the largest multi-channel estuary of Western Europe. 15 years and another deepening later, Vogelbescherming Nederland (VBN/BirdLife in The Netherlands) together with Natuurpunt (BirdLife in Flanders/Belgium) is still fighting for their government to respect its own laws and to start compensation measures on the ground.
The estuary of the River Scheldt is situated in the south-west of the Netherlands, partly crossing the border with Belgium. The Natura 2000 site (NL-122 ‘Westerschelde en Saeftinghe’) in the Dutch part of the estuary covers about 42.000 ha. and has been designated both under the Birds and the Habitat Directives. The River Scheldt Estuary is the largest multi-channel estuary of Western Europe and is vital for over 40 species of bird (amongst other fauna & flora).
In the mid 1990s a deepening of the main traffic channel in the estuary was carried out in order to facilitate access to the Antwerp harbour. Although the need to carry out effective compensation and restoration measures in the context of the Habitats Directive was recognised, the Dutch government failed to implement these because of resistance in local communities. In order to be effective the compensation measures include broadening the estuary by realignment of the dikes further inland.
The European Commission started an infringement procedure against the Netherlands in 1997, which was stopped in 2006 when the government promised to fulfil its duties by developing new estuarine habitat over at least 600 ha. These compensatory measures were integrated in a framework for sustainable development of the estuary, agreed with Flanders, regional authorities and stakeholders, including Vogelbescherming Nederland (BirdLife Partner in The Netherlands), and assigned in a cabinet decision, a bilateral treaty with Flanders adopted in Parliament and a covenant with the regional authorities of Province of Zeeland in 2006.
Nonetheless successive Dutch government have continued to cause delays, hereby showing a refusal to take their statutory obligations seriously. The conservation status of the estuary as well as some of the (sub)habitats and species have been assessed by the Dutch government in 2003 as (very) unfavourable. Species, habitats and ecosystem services are deteriorating as the result of changes in the water system, caused by dredging for shipping purposes, land reclamation, development of industrial areas etc. The spectacular multi-channel system is threatened by the risk of irreversible degradation into a ‘poor’ single channel system, similar to what has happened to the River Seine Estuary.
VBN, Vogelbescherming Nederland (BirdLife partner in The Netherlands)
Bert Denneman, bert.denneman(at)vogelbescherming.nl
VBN has therefore taken the State of the Netherlands to court in 2011 (verdict expected Sept. 2012); In June 2012 the European Commission started a new infringement procedure and Flanders prepared a complaint to the international court of arbitration, in order to make the Netherlands implement the signed agreements. In the meantime the River Scheldt Estuary, and it ecosystem, continue to deteriorate step by step.
The case of the River Scheldt Estuary demonstrates that the success of Natura 2000 and effective site protection depends on governments fulfilling their statutory obligations on implementation of compensatory measures. The European Commission must fulfil its role as “Guardian of the EU-law” and insist that Member States comply with the rules they adopted themselves at EU-level.