Connected Rivers of Resilience

Overview

Rivers have sustained civilizations throughout history, from Egypt's Nile to China's Yangtze. They're not just bodies of water; they are among the most diverse and productive ecosystems on the planet, supporting more than 100,000 freshwater species and providing resources crucial for our very survival including food, and clean water. 

Sadly, rivers are under serious threat, and increasingly, people and nature are experiencing the climate crisis through water. Droughts and floods are increasing in frequency and severity, from the Mekong River in southeast Asia to the Rio Grande in the US. Rivers and their floodplains have the potential to act as shock absorbers to climate change, but only if we can keep their natural features intact or incorporate green and grey infrastructure that allows natural processes to occur. Even the mightiest rivers' flows have been impacted by infrastructure like dams, pollution from cities and agriculture, higher levels of water extraction, and overfishing. More and more, water flows arrive either too early or too late or with too much or too little water—causing droughts or floods and impacting people and nature. Human activities across the planet have dangerously degraded, and in some cases decimated, free-flowing interconnected rivers.  

Today, only one third of the world's longest rivers remain free-flowing, and without urgent action, half of humanity will face severe water scarcity by 2030. But there's hope. By prioritizing river-friendly infrastructure, safeguarding freshwater ecosystems, and restoring degraded waterways, WWF is striving for a future where rivers can adapt and provide resilience in a changing climate. 

Geographies

Map of river basins

 Amazon

 Pantanal

 Balkans

 KAZA & its Headwaters

 Luangwa

 Indus Basin

 Eastern & Western Himalayas

 Ayeyerwaddy & Salween

 Lower Mekong

Why river connectivity matters

Across the globe, free-flowing interconnected rivers are under threat. When we lose connected rivers, we lose the benefits they provide to people and nature. To address this crisis, WWF has a four-pillar approach. that focuses on conservation and management in places where rivers are most at risk.

aerial view of Long Singut community river basin_Malaysia

Why It Matters

  • People depend on rivers

    Rivers provide invaluable resources to society. Globally, an estimated 2 billion people rely directly on rivers for their drinking water and 500 million people—about one out of 14 people on earth—live on deltas sustained by sediment from rivers. Healthy, connected rivers are important sources of resilience helping to withstand and adapt to shocks and stresses. Many cultural traditions are also based in or around rivers. For example, sacred sites are found at the confluence of rivers throughout the Himalayan region. Rivers also support entire economies through activities including fisheries, tourism, recreation, and agriculture.

  • Rivers provide food and livelihoods for people

    In September 2021, WWF launched Rivers of Food, highlighting that one-third of global food production relies on rivers. These rivers are essential for agriculture, fisheries, and aquaculture, yet are often overlooked in sustainable food discussions. The FAO reports that river fisheries support 60 million livelihoods and are a primary protein source for hundreds of millions of people. They are valued at over $43 billion. Recreational river fisheries add another $65 billion to $80 billion annually. With global food production potentially dropping by 30% by 2050, food from rivers will become increasingly vital for livelihoods. 

  • Biodiversity

    Rivers and freshwater ecosystems cover significantly less than one percent of the earth’s surface but host a disproportionate share of life on earth. For example, over half of all fish species are freshwater species. However, freshwater species, including iconic river dolphins, are on the decline. Freshwater fish experienced the highest extinction rate worldwide among vertebrates in the 20th century. According to WWF's Living Planet Report, freshwater wildlife populations declined 83% between 1970 and 2018 and over one third of the world's wetlands have been lost since 1970. Without thoughtful intervention, free-flowing rivers will continue to be lost, and we will continue to witness the decline and loss of freshwater species along with the benefits they provide to people.

  • Sediment delivery

    Rivers, along with the sediments they carry, shape and build environments for nature and people. The nutrients carried by rivers are essential to ensure that adjacent lands are fertile enough to grow food and support wildlife. The capacity of rivers to deliver sediment and nutrients to sustain deltas is critical, yet many of the world's largest deltas are now sinking and shrinking because of large-scale sand mining, sea-level rise, and upstream infrastructure development that reduces sediment flows.

  • Climate resilience

    Many of climate change’s greatest impacts on people and nature are being felt through water. The climate crisis is pushing natural systems to a tipping point - bringing worse droughts and floods, and a higher risk of fires. Already, about 25% of the world’s population has direct exposure to flood risk according to the World Economic Forum. In the face of a changing climate, conserving or restoring the connectivity of rivers and their floodplains is increasingly important to provide strengthen the resilience of communities and economies; maintain critical lifelines for aquatic species to move to new habitats as conditions change; deliver water; manage floods; and serve as corridors for terrestrial species.

  • Infrastructure

    Infrastructure development and other human-made changes have fragmented or disrupted two-thirds of earth's longest rivers. We need to invest in sustainable infrastructure planning and development, stronger protections for critically important freshwater connectivity corridors and critical habitats, better management of freshwater ecosystem resources, and innovations that safeguard river connectivity, floodplains, and groundwater recharge. The tools, know-how and expertise exist to ensure that infrastructure is sustainably implemented, and the moment is now to scale wide-spread adoption of these practices.

What WWF Is Doing

Aerial view of a free-flowing blue river snaking through the green Bolivian Amazon

WWF collaborates with partner groups and communities on the ground, in the business sector, and in the halls of government to improve planning for infrastructure projects that impact rivers in priority landscapes around the world, protecting freshwater systems and restoring healthy waterways. WWF is undertaking a four-part strategy:

Keeping the Luangwa Free-Flowing

The Luangwa River—one of the last long free-flowing rivers in Zambia and one of the largest unaltered river systems in southern Africa—is an essential water source for people and wildlife. WWF worked with the Government of Zambia, village chiefs, communities, and the tourism sector to stop the Ndevu Dam project on the Luangwa River. This dam would have jeopardized livelihoods and some of the country’s iconic wildlife, highlighting the ripple effects that dams have on the free-flowing status of rivers like this one and the life they support.

Shifts in agriculture and its expansion, wood collection, livestock grazing, and wildlife poaching continue to threaten Luangwa. WWF is building on our work with communities and the government to propose a water resource protected area in the headwaters, improve small farmer agricultural practices, and designate community forests to reduce land degradation and biodiversity loss. 

What’s more, we have developed the technical foundation to identify sustainable, low-carbon alternatives to hydropower. As part of this work, we have engaged with decision makers to guide energy planning and development toward effective alternatives through the country’s national infrastructure development plans, aiming to ensure long-term freshwater protections that also meet infrastructure needs. 

SUSTAINABLE WATER AND ENERGY PLANNING

Rows of solar panels

Strategic planning and choices made at the outset of water management and energy projects hold immense power to safeguard rivers. WWF advocates for natural and nature-based water storage solutions like floodplain reconnection and aquifer recharge, prioritizing ecosystem-based adaptation and green infrastructure. Furthermore, WWF works with stakeholders to facilitate the development of science-based, sustainable plans for energy and water storage and management.

WWF is supporting uptake of new development pathways, financial tools, and other incentives to shift development planning in ways that maximize economic benefits while minimizing negative impacts on people and nature. These efforts can be seen in the research performed by WWF and partners in Nepal to assess and model Nepal’s energy options. The outputs of this research can help the Government of Nepal identify a suite of projects that have lower impact on rivers for the same energy output, benefitting both the people and nature. 

WWF also works closely with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMECS) on producing River Basin Report Cards. This process includes developing, packaging, and sharing a process that helps stakeholders create science-based “report cards” in their own basins with local input and global credibility, so they can better manage resources for the protection of the freshwater source they depend upon.

POLICY PROTECTIONS AND GOVERNANCE

A woman sits on a river bank washing clothes while a child swims naked in the water

Rivers face unsustainable demands, and current protection measures fall short. With only 17% of the world’s free-flowing rivers located in protected areas, many of these vital systems—and the communities, species, and landscapes dependent on them—are in jeopardy. WWF and partners push for legal safeguards for crucial freshwater corridors and habitats. WWF has reviewed existing mechanisms for river protection and is actively working to safeguard rivers in key regions worldwide. Through this work, WWF helped to halt the construction of the Sambor Dam in the Mekong River in Cambodia. Additionally, we advocate for the explicit recognition of freshwater ecosystems in global and national policies, including the Convention on Biological Diversity.

River Restoration

Aerial photo of riverside with rocks

We can neither bend the curve on freshwater biodiversity loss nor meet the water security needs of a growing population without restoring degraded river systems. Fortunately, we have the science and tools to restore rivers and build their resilience to a changing climate. WWF and partners are working to reconnect streams and rivers with their floodplains to refill groundwater stores, manage flooding, and create, maintain, and expand wetlands. For example, Recharge Pakistan, a seven-year initiative to restore riparian forests, streams, and wetlands in the Indus Basin will provide flood protection to 680,000 residents while also enhancing the habitat for migratory birds. River restoration breathes new life into degraded waterways, revitalizing ecosystems, and forging a path toward a more sustainable future.

PROMOTING RESILIENCE

A woman sitting between two men at a dinner table in conversation with additional people behind them at other tables

WWF promotes river resilience through a multifaceted approach.  

By leveraging scientific expertise and thought leadership, we develop innovative methodologies to guide conservation efforts and share best practices.  

A few examples of the cutting-edge scientific work that WWF has led include: 

Our public advocacy and communication campaigns have stopped damaging dams, changed public perception on the value of science, and raised awareness about the detrimental impacts of unsustainable infrastructure and the potential of alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar energy as well as natural solutions for rivers. Furthermore, WWF’s engagement with multilateral organizations, investors, and government agencies influences water and energy planning processes, driving the protection of free-flowing rivers and the incorporation of nature-based solutions into adaptation plans.

WWF's efforts extend to influencing financing mechanisms to incentivize sustainable practices, partnering with governments to stimulate investment in nature-based solutions, and encouraging private sector entities to adopt stringent standards and support alternative energy options. Through these comprehensive strategies, WWF endeavors to halt the construction of damaging dams, shift public perception toward sustainable river management, and raise global awareness about the importance of healthy rivers.

Projects

  • Paani Program: Supporting Energy Planning & River Conservation in Nepal

    Nepal is a country rich in water resources. Many of Nepal’s rivers have been developed and many more have hydropower dams and irrigation infrastructure projects proposed on them. While these projects can bring certain services, they can also impact the cultural, environmental, and economic values that natural rivers provide. WWF and partners conducted a series of analyses to inform system-scale energy planning for safe development and river conservation.

  • Orinoco Basin Report Card

    WWF, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and several local partners collaborated to develop a report card for the Colombian portion of the Orinoco river basin. The report card will help inform management and policy decisions that impact the Orinoco, building a better future for all.

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