Roberto Epple
Ashoka Fellow since 2007   |   France

Roberto Epple

European Rivers Network
At the beginning of the 1990s, Roberto Epple became one of the major actors of a campaign to preserve the River Loire, the last wild river in Europe, causing the French government to abdicate and…
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This description of Roberto Epple's work was prepared when Roberto Epple was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.


At the beginning of the 1990s, Roberto Epple became one of the major actors of a campaign to preserve the River Loire, the last wild river in Europe, causing the French government to abdicate and preventing the constructing a series of large dams along its course. Based on this successful experience, Roberto created a “River Parliament”—a European network of local and national citizen organizations willing to work together. Since the early 2000s, European Rivers Network (ERN) has gathered the major associations involved in the preservation of fifty European rivers.

The New Idea

Roberto has designed a “bottom-up” approach with ERN. This informal and non-hierarchical network is made up of several organizations specializing in the management and preservation of river basins for fifty rivers. Benchmarking ideas, this flexible network enables him to spot every type of innovation used on every basin of European rivers and to instantly identify and share best practices. This approach allows for a greater ability to react and a superior coordination between all participants, enabling them to learn from each other quicker and keep their local specificities.
To obtain the best results for the preservation of small and large rivers, it is essential to organize a coherent approach on their whole courses. That is why Roberto’s work is structured around a river basin approach, as opposed to a country or specific thematic approach. This strategy enables Roberto to reintroduce the concept of “solidarity” between upstream and downstream areas, and to suggest concerted approaches between different organizations based in different countries or regions, but working on the same river.
To tackle the evolving issues around the use of water and its scarcity, especially in a context of global warming, Roberto’s work is developing beyond traditional Europe. His network is progressively stretching towards Southern Europe, the Near East and North Africa, where the issue of water and river management implies major economic and geopolitical concern.

The Problem

According to the European Commission, 70 percent of the rivers, lakes and underground waters may be in very critical condition by 2015, because of their over-exploitation by different economic sectors (agriculture, industry, and tourism) and various organizations. On top of this exploitation is the issue of global warming, which may worsen the situation, especially in Southern European countries plagued by an increasing lack of water.

The consequences of the rivers’ poor condition are environmental (decay of habitats and extinction of animals species), social (access to drinking water, loss of leisure activities like bathing, and fishing) and economic (loss of jobs, price of water, damage to tourism, agriculture and other industries) in nature.

To tackle these issues, civil society usually responds with a large number of organizations (different in size and dedicated to various purposes) which have expanded in Europe for the past twenty years. However, these organizations—seldom coordinated, apart from some federations—are often hierarchical and waste a lot of time and energy on their own management and internal operation. Adding to this fragmentation, their approach is generally thematic and sometimes coupled with ideological and cultural approaches. As a result, the coordination of all these activities is extremely difficult, especially as the same river often crosses several countries, making organization more challenging, although often, a number of successful initiatives on a local scale could be generated.

The problem for each small or large river is of another nature. The notion of “solidarity” between upstream and downstream areas is not widely shared, given that many associations do not have the necessary means to act on a scale other than local. Therefore, an organization frequently works on a particular problem in a particular city; isolated from organizations doing similar work a few hundred miles away. A lack of coordination is apparent on rivers such as the Rhine, which crosses several countries. The negative impact of a lack in coordination is especially a concern in areas where water availability is reduced. In the near future, countries such as Spain and North-African countries will have to find the means to meet their increasing water requirements, particularly due to the development of their tourism and agricultural industries. Furthermore, in other countries, water management can take a major geopolitical dimension. The decisions taken by Turkey on the management of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers impact the whole region. For example, a part of the Great Anatoly Project (GAP), for the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants, has generated tensions about the use of water by riverside states, notably Iraq. Therefore, it is essential to imagine global solutions that account for the interests of all parties directly involved in the use and exploitation of the rivers, and the services provided by the rivers.

The Strategy

The development of the ERN in 1994, constituted the first step of Roberto’s action. Initially dealing with four major basins, Roberto quickly understood the need to broaden their scope to increase the base of good ideas and practices. The network accelerated from 2000, with a noticeable expansion to Eastern European countries. Membership in the network is based on a certain number of criteria and is not automatic. Each member is required to be the reference association on their basin, must demonstrate notoriety and has the human resources necessary to participate in varied works of ERN. Today, fifty associations are members of ERN, and each is the leader in their country.

ERN works in two ways. First, it acts as an amplifier for good ideas and best practices, gathering every innovating piece of information, study or practice in the field of river conservation and water management, and information exchange. This exchange is made possible thanks to the ERN Internet platform (one of the first websites in France in the 1990s), which compiles the works and makes them available to network members’ as well as to the general public. Regular conferences over the phone, around a theme or a particular basin, also enable the network to be very active. Finally, an annual meeting, called “think camp” encourages members to exchange ideas on fundamental subjects.

Second, ERN initiates federal projects that are locally adapted and takes into account the specifics of each country or basin. The “Big Jump” is the most visible and fulfils an expectation on the part of the communities to get involved and become engaged in the management and preservation of rivers. Assuming Europeans have lost touch with their environment and are unable to appropriate something they do not know, Roberto imagined a large-scale operation, based on games, that is easily replicable, and involves hundreds of thousands of people with the aim to enable them play a positive role. Thanks to the Big Jump, on the same day and at the same time, all over Europe the public, including schools, are given the opportunity to create a link with their rivers, by bathing and getting involved in festive preventive actions, sports, and artistic challenges.

Relying on the ERN and local networks of each member association, the Big Jump is easy to organize, and what each offers is left to the discretion of the association. Key messages and communication devices are managed in a centralized way, but each town, organization or group is independent. Bathing is the central striking point, but sports challenges, cultural activities, and exhibitions of children’s drawings complete the day-long programme by conveying a positive message. Successful in 2002 on the River Elbe, this action was carried out in 22 countries in 2005, and gathered nearly 250,000 participants. This year, nearly 500,000 people were expected, with an expansion towards countries in North Africa. The network approach is flexible and contrary to an international federation, stays away from power issues, but keeps the focus on practical programmes and projects. Decisions are made by consensus. The ERN constitutes the keystone of Roberto’s strategy: It enables him to effectively bring into play coordinated actions for each different basin.

Roberto is now concentrating on new issues and opportunities. A first large-scale operation is about to start in France, in partnership with Electricité de France (EDF), one of the world leaders in the production of electric energy, especially hydroelectric energy. Observing that many dams are falling into disrepair in France—but also in other European countries—Roberto has initiated discussions with EDF that aim to identify which electric dams must be kept and renovated, and which must be dismantled. By skilfully using the mediatic weight of ERN, Roberto has gradually been able to lead EDF to producing “green energy” without resorting to confrontation.

Roberto also takes a stand on another area: The hotel and tourism industries. He intends to help them change their habits in terms of water consumption—in the areas where tourist pressure is the strongest is where water resources are most low. His approach aims to make them realize not only the direct savings they will earn, but also the positive customer impact they will communicate. By creating Aquanet in the Mediterranean basin, he has revealed the implications of the industries that consume large quantities of water, and is launching a certification programme for hotels to make significant efforts to improve water management.

The first stage of his strategy consists in raising the level of consciousness among the hotel owners and staff and demonstrating their short-term interests (to save water = to save money). The objective is strong media impact to create awareness among the public about this issue and to encourage them to take this into account when selecting their hotels. This action, according to Roberto, will encourage the industry to take action around their efforts if they want to receive a high ranking or the best classification, and will foster customer loyalty. In addition to the very famous stars, the hotels which will apply for it will have the opportunity to be certified between “1 to 5 drops.”

Roberto is also aware of the importance of climate change in his approach. In some countries, Roberto focuses his action on the theme of dryness, which concerns for the most part, South European countries, and all Mediterranean countries.

Roberto plans to move his organization’s center south in 2007 and 2008. A “Mediterranean Sea” agency will open in Montpellier (South of France) and joint efforts with North Africa and Middle-East countries, such as Morocco, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, or Turkey, are in progress.

Roberto relies on the Big Jump with the participation of these countries, and is developing a system of hotel labelling in this area, together with a campaign of awareness aimed at tourists. A transfer of this approach towards other sectors of activities that consume large quantities of water in this part of the globe will follow (golf courses for example), before considering the best approach for the agricultural sector.

The Person

Born in Switzerland, Roberto began his career in the textile and chemical industries (blue jeans manufacturing) in Italy and Switzerland. He was the person in charge of communication and public relations, and he organized the first corporate campaigns around awareness of environmental preservation. While founding a company producing films and documentaries for various associations such as World Wildlife Fund, he was soon entrusted by this association with the role of orchestrating various media campaigns for European national parks.

It was during his fight to protect the River Loire against a government project to construct a series of dams—that his action took on a new dimension. This large operation lasted several years, rallied public opinion and involved thousands of citizens, was rewarded in 1992 with the Goldmann Prize, awarded to Christine Jean, Roberto’s co-founder of the “Loire Vivante” (Loire Alive) project. This amazing success led him to carry on similar actions in other European countries (especially Germany) and to create ERN. While he is often asked to lead the same type of operations on other basins such as the Elbe, Roberto understands the need to transfer knowledge and experience from one basin to another in a more flexible and dynamic way than the existing federations or large organizations. During the first years of the network, his role was to gather the main actors, define the selection criteria and above all to create major federating actions that would be easy to replicate locally. Today, ERN and Roberto’s own popularity has enabled him to speed up its development, and to envisage an impact beyond European frontiers, sharing the experience he has acquired throughout the years in many contexts. The issues linked to water management have surpassed environmental considerations, and now depend on major economic and geopolitical stakes. Though a sensitive issue, little signs such as Palestinians and Israelis bathing together in the River Jordan during the last Big Jump allow him to believe that nothing is impossible.

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