With nearly half the world’s population affected by water scarcity and demand for freshwater continuing to soar, a recent WWF report shows how governments can successfully protect and restore river flows – helping to ensure sufficient water for people and nature.
Around a third of all river basins are already being heavily depleted and there is increasing pressure to pump even more water from the world’s rivers to meet the needs of a growing population and rapidly expanding towns and cities. Many rivers now run dry or barely flow, severely impacting local communities, national development and global biodiversity.
Listen to the River: Lessons from a global review of environmental flow success stories looks at how governments across the globe have taken significant steps in the past decade towards ensuring healthier rivers. Galvanized by the landmark Brisbane Declaration on Environmental Flows that was crafted during the 2007 symposium, water management authorities from China to South Africa and Mexico have successfully implemented initiatives to bring water and life back to their rivers.
Among the case studies is one on the Crocodile River, which forms the southern boundary of the Kruger National Park. The river is the most utilised tributary of the transboundary Incomati River basin which is shared between Swaziland, South Africa and Mozambique and is under increasing pressure due to water demand for irrigated agriculture and municipal use.
“Healthy rivers are the lifeblood of thriving communities and economies and this report provides real hope by showing that river flows can be protected or restored despite all the dams, diversions and increasing demands,” said Dave Tickner, Chief Freshwater Advisor WWF-UK and one of the authors of the report. “The challenges are immense but it is clear that concerted, collective action can meet the needs of healthy rivers and the people and wildlife that depend on them,” added Tickner.
Along with over-abstraction of water for agricultural, industrial and domestic use, natural river flows have also been altered by a proliferation of dams, changing land use and urbanisation. Poor water governance has compounded these threats, which will be exacerbated by climate change.
Efforts to overcome these challenges have often struggled to make any headway due to a lack of political will, insufficient resources and institutional barriers. However, many success stories have emerged – including the eight from Australia, China, England, India, Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa and the USA featured in this report – which all highlight the benefits of better management of river flows for society and ecosystems.
“Ensuring enough clean water flows through the world’s rivers is fundamental to hopes of providing ‘water for all’ and will contribute significantly towards the achievement of other Sustainable Development Goals, including reducing poverty and hunger, and improving health,” said Tickner.
There is no single correct way to protect and restore river flows since each river system is different and each approach must be tailored to the specific conditions. However, the report does highlight some common trends behind successful e-flow initiatives.
Along with enacting clear and effective legislation and regulations and maintaining the political will to enforce them, it is also critical to engage meaningfully with all stakeholders. Sufficient resources should be secured for the entire process from design to implementation and monitoring, and consideration must be given to how the project will affect the economic and social conditions for different groups of people.
It is also important to implement some level of protection for flows as early as possible since it is easier to restrict allocation of water at the start rather than attempt to re-allocate it later on. And finally, river flows are dynamic and it is vital to monitor the ecological, social and economic effects of environmental flow implementation and react accordingly.
“Restoring river flows will never be easy, whether it’s a small chalk stream in southern England or the vast Yangtze River in China, but we now have the necessary scientific knowledge and a host of success stories to learn from,” said Tickner. “Now it is up to governments, water management agencies, financial institutions, the private sector, and NGOs to collaborate to improve the health of the world’s rivers – and there is no time to waste.”
Along with publication of WWF’s report, global efforts to restore and protect river flows are expected to receive another major boost at this year’s Riversymposium. On the 10th anniversary of the Brisbane Declaration, participants are likely to adopt significant revisions to the original text, which will explicitly show the importance of environmental flows to the SDGs and other international agreements