People for rivers: river contracts

The river contract has always been a veritable river basin planning and management tool. Active participation has been a practice in use since the Middle Ages in the Netherlands, where citizen organisations were established to make shared decisions on the management of rivers and the problems they could cause. Until the early 20th century, water, together with rivers, was regarded as a community assets, and its management was governed by statutes – a practice used widely in Italy too. The emergency conditions brought about by the two world wars drastically altered the approach to the management of water resources and put an end to the virtuous cycle associated with it. Economic expansion in the post-war years, in fact, led to the emergence of strong conflicts over water, as the demand for fresh water to meet farming, civil and industrial requirements escalated. Only since the 1970s, have we witnessed a gradual return to the concept of water as a common good, entailing the recognition of individual responsibility.
The first river contract was signed in France in 1980, also thanks to an intense environmental education program in the schools; this practice was adopted in Italy shortly afterwards, following the approval of the European Water Framework Directive. A national coordination table for river contracts was established and, to this day, 200 river contracts have been concluded throughout Italy. In 2015, this important tool was integrated into the Consolidated Environmental Protection Act, providing for comprehensive regulations related to the management of water and the environment. The river contract is a voluntary practice according to the Act, which stresses the notion that a participatory management of the rivers is advantageous for the individuals and their families, for the environment and, in general, for society as a whole, in other words, improvements to the environment contribute to improved local development. Thus, river contracts and participation are key elements for the communities that begin again to handle collective assets in a shared and coordinated manner.

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