In this blog, I’d like to share with you my secondment experience in BOKU, and how we developed a project about river and people.

The study area is the 48km stretch of the Danube east of Vienna to the border with Bratislava, which is also part of the Donau-Auen National Park (see the figure below). The extent of floodplains in the area has reduced dramatically due to human activities and impacts from land use change, dam construction, and river regulation among others. The variety of interests including navigation, nature protection, biodiversity, flood prevention, and others has made the management and governance of the river quite a challenge. The main goal of this secondment is to study how the current implemented management approaches have addressed these different interests and what can be learned and improved to achieve more desirable social and ecological status. In the following of the blog, I’ll walk you through how this secondment journey has evolved!

The Geographic location of the Danube east of Vienna (a) and the floodplain wetlands in the Donau-Auen National Park (b) (Figure produced by ESR8 Sonia Recinos)

It already started during the i-CONN advanced course in Vienna (check out this blog from our ESR13 Deborah for more of the event!), when Sonia from BOKU, introduced her work on the impacts of floodplain restoration measures on connectivity properties in this Danube area (check more of Sonia’s work here). On the field trip, with her supervisor Thomas and the representative from the National Park Stefan, they showed us how some of the restoration measures such as side-arm reconnections can be implemented.

Field trip in the Donau-Auen National Park

The experience and learning during the advanced course definitely provided a good basis for the secondment later on, as it helped me understand the ecological perspectives better. Especially for someone like me, who comes from a background that rarely deals with ecology and river engineering techniques. The secondment started with a few preparation meetings, where the BOKU team shared more information on the project background and the involved stakeholders; the MUNI team presented the frameworks on Action Situations and their applications (more of this approach can be found in my previous blog); and how we could potentially apply such analytical approaches to study river and people together.

The area has got a rather complicated history in terms of its management. There has been a long-lasting conflict between the navigation and nature protection interests that could be dated back to the 80s, when the nationwide protests prevented the establishment of the Hainburg Danube power plant and set the course for the Donauauen National Park. Later on, a participatory stakeholder approach that aims to address potential conflicts and facilitate collaborations between stakeholders with different interests, has been adopted in the form of the stakeholder forum and advisory board. The first forum was launched in 2012 for the pilot project in the area of Bad Deutsch-Altenburg. The current ongoing one is the second phase that commenced in 2017, consisting of members with navigation and nature protection interests, from the public sector, private sector, and civil society. In the end, we decided to study the stakeholder forum in its two phases, especially the evolution of the decision-making process, and its impacts on the social and ecological outcomes in terms of conflict resolution, collaboration, and hydrological connectivity.

We first had a conversation with one of the key stakeholders in the forum, viadonau, who is in charge of the restoration measures and also the facilitator of the forum. With the support of viadonau, we, later on, reached out to the members of forum and asked if they will be interested in participating in our study via the form of survey and/or interview. In the end, we had most of them on board! I would say it is definitely one of the most enriching and informative experiences of my PhD work, to have direct communication and exchanges with stakeholders with different perspectives. Though it is never an easy task to organize and get everyone on board, I’ve got incredible support from my colleagues and the stakeholders to keep it forward!

The interview meeting in viadonau

By far, you’ve probably seen how the secondment has evolved step by step, starting from problem identification, to research design, to data collection, and the next steps would be to dive into the data and of course, to finally write it up! The work is still continuing, and I’m very much looking forward to sharing more about what we’ll find out later on!