The effects on the Alps of increasingly hot summers can be seen in the shrinking of many of its permanent ice fields. Evidence of retreating glaciers is hardly revelatory but hand in hand with greater amounts of meltwater entering upland rivers is the lack of natural precipitation in the mountains, often leaving farmers with an inability to maintain their herds during dry spells now more frequent than unusual. All the while the jealously guarded storage ponds that pockmark many mountainsides that can resemble mini-reservoirs, whose contents are reserved for the production of artificial snow, represent an appalling waste of a finite resource which only adds insult to injury to those who need it the most during the summer season.
The loss and inappropriate use of water are not though the only issues. Contamination of lake water with human waste, litter, and chemicals found within sunscreen become more prevalent as visitors seek respite during particularly hot periods of weather. Bathing water quality in Slovenia has recently been adjudged to be excellent, which is indeed good news, assessed from the point of view that it is safe for those entering the water in a bacterial sense. It is though the lakes and rivers used by pleasure seekers in all alpine countries that are at the mercy of negative human intervention. Those that enter the water run far less a risk of getting more from it than they put in.
Chemicals from sunscreen that enter the water in Lake Bohinj do not remain in the local environment. As one of the starting points for the River Sava Bohinj’s lake water can in theory eventually feed into the Danube in Belgrade, potentially transporting toxins originating hundreds of kilometres away. It is unclear how long sunscreen-related pollution remains an active ingredient within watercourses, especially in those that are fast flowing, but within endorheic lakes that do not drain into other watercourses there is the potential for this and most forms of pollution to remain for longer.
It can be argued that this form of pollution is seasonal, limited to being inflicted by those wearing from an environmental perspective the most damaging type sunscreen instead of the natural, far less harmful products on the market, in lakes formed from a combination of ancient retreating glaciers and snowmelt and are therefore not man made drinking water reservoirs – nor a risk to humans. Whilst in some cases that will be correct, it is the potential for damage to the fragile ecosystems which form many of the aspects of life in lakes and rivers that go unseen even by those drawn to the Alps for their God-given beauty which pay the highest price.
Adding chemicals and agents otherwise foreign to salt or freshwater environments not designed for their new host can alter the reproductive potential of endemic species; those found over a wider area can themselves be affected by toxins that have travelled some distance. Away from alpine regions the DNA structures of coral can be permanently altered by chemicals from sunscreen, quite aside from the damage wrought upon it by another man-made intervention – Climate Change. Significant publicity and weight, and rightly so, has been given to the scourge of plastic within marine environments and just about everywhere on earth, but humanity is more attuned to this issue, one they can unequivocally see, and the search for solutions than an invisible threat contained within a product predicated on being an essential to our immediate and future wellbeing.
The for now paused application to link up the Pitz and Oetz valleys high in the Austrian Tirol consisting of a new cableway, pistes, and associated winter sports infrastructure highlights the futility of predicating such a financially costly scheme on an assumption that its ultimate selling point, glacier skiing, will be possible in the next 20-30 years. The Pitztal is understandable aggrieved that it has missed the boat from which many other valleys, including the Oetztal, have prospered with similar schemes, but there can be little justification for the carving up of virgin landscape in the name of a project which may become obsolete before it has started paying for itself.
There are therefore obvious synergies between the Pitztal/Oetztal proposal and the construction of hydroelectric power plants on rivers in alpine settings, including Slovenia’s Sava. Rivers that do not benefit from glacial meltwater or exorheic draining lakes, admittedly not the Sava in its proximity to Lake Bohinj, can almost run dry during increasingly prevalent hot summers, reducing the efficacy of the production of hydroelectric power to negligible levels. The aesthetic effects that interrupt visual appeal in otherwise bucolic surroundings and the potential damage to the health of fish and their ability to spawn are sacrificed on the altar of pursuing the production of renewable energy, in a similar way wind turbines can have devastating effects on birdlife. Even those rivers that can rely on a steady rate of water flow during the summer months which seemingly justifies the building of plants to harness its power are having their natural landscapes manipulated but should this be accepted, albeit under strict design and environmental protocols? There is though little certainty that all of the downsides attendant with the production of renewable energy can be overcome, bringing into play as to whether the benefits can ever outweigh the negative effects. Without a standard definition of what this would constitute, different agendas and opinions lend a high level of subjectivity to the argument.
Water security has been defined as “the reliable availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks”. This though would seem to relate to water scarcity and flooding caused by an increasingly unreliable and volatile meteorological climate, and eliminating contamination from drinking water and irrigation perspectives. A wider definition of water security should include eliminating inappropriate use and the protection of its resident biosphere from man’s intervention.
The reliance on the winter sports industry in most of Europe’s alpine regions and the frequent need to produce artificial snow in the absence of sufficient quantities of the real thing would place a high level of subjectivity on the definition of ‘inappropriate use’. It has though never properly been explained how landscapes for centuries characterized by farming, particularly the grazing of cattle and sheep, can run short of water for its livestock, while fodder for snow cannons is stored in plain sight of farmers who need it the most. The wider economic implications of a faltering ski season is in reality the only answer why, but that in no way justifies how this relative new kid on the block has usurped generations of tradition as to who lays the greater claim to this taken for granted, finite resource.
Lake Bled, Bohinj’s more commercialised and rowdier neighbour that is custodian to its own incredible backdrop amid some questionable architecture redolent of the Yugoslav era, has to its credit introduced free natural sunscreen for those intending to bathe in the lake. It is though assumed that these visitors will already be armed with their own protection, and humanity being what it is or has increasingly become, there are no guarantees that being gently asked or even told to do something beneficial for someone/something else will bear fruit. Ignorance is no defence, although that is no longer a human trait which many feel ashamed of.
Water quality in any region of the world is in the end reliant on human behaviour, and the processes, storage facilities, and drainage put in place. If though such conflict over the use and protection of a resource that characterises much of the Alps’ landscape cannot be overcome by respecting something that is no longer a racing certainty, there should be few surprises in an already uncertain future if the environment will no longer yield to the schemes of man.
Source material and further information:
Wikipedia(Sava river): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sava