Free-flowing Rivers

Overview

From the Nile to the Yangtze, rivers have long been the lifeblood of civilizations around the world. They are among the most diverse and productive ecosystems on the planet, contributing to economic growth, food security, and human well-being. Rivers and the waters and nutrients they carry feed forests, wetlands, other terrestrial habitats, and are home for many of the more than 100,000 freshwater species.

Unfortunately, rivers are also severely threatened by humankind’s growing demands for food, water, and energy. Just one-third of the world's longest rivers remain free-flowing (see interactive map). Very long (>1,000 km) free-flowing rivers are largely restricted to remote regions of the Arctic and of the Amazon and Congo basins. In densely populated areas only few very long rivers remain free-flowing, such as the Irrawaddy and Salween. Additionally, only 23% of the longest rivers still flow uninterrupted to the ocean.The rest are changed by infrastructure or water withdrawals that depress aquatic wildlife and undermine many of the invaluable services that rivers provide. WWF envisions a world where the most critical free-flowing rivers are valued and protected for the enduring benefit of people, wildlife, and nature.

Initiatives

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 (approximately one out of 14 people on Earth) live on deltas that are sustained by sediment from rivers. 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 a number of activities including fisheries, tourism, recreation, and agriculture.

  • Rivers provide food and livelihoods for people

    A 2020 report by the Fish and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that river fisheries provide livelihoods for 60 million people. In a 2018 report, the FAO estimated that river fisheries provide the primary source of protein for hundreds of millions of people worldwide, their value is estimated at upwards of $43 billion. The 2018 FAO report also estimated that recreationally, river fisheries are valued between $65 billion-$80 billion per year.

  • Biodiversity

    When well-connected to their riparian and floodplain areas, rivers support life much beyond their boundaries. 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 84% between 1970 and 2016 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 and their benefits to people.

  • Sediment delivery

    Rivers, and the sediments they carry, shape, and build environments for nature and people. The nutrients carried by rivers are essential for fertile lands adjacent to rivers 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 as a result of upstream infrastructure development reducing sediment flows, large-scale sand mining, and sea-level rise.

  • Climate resilience

    Much of climate change’s greatest impacts on people and nature are being felt through water. Climate change will ultimately push natural systems to a tipping point - bringing worse droughts and floods, and a higher risk of fires. In the face of a changing climate, conserving connected and free-flowing rivers and their floodplains will be increasingly important in order to provide a buffer for more resilient communities and economies; maintain critical lifelines for aquatic species to move to new habitats as conditions change; deliver water; and serve as corridors for terrestrial species.

  • Infrastructure

    The most severe threat to river systems is unsustainable dam development. With more than 3,700 hydropower dams under construction or planned, rivers, and the critical aquatic life they host, are at risk. While hydropower is a less carbon-intensive energy source, poorly placed dams can have devastating impacts. The future depends on finding alternative energy solutions like wind or solar and placing new infrastructure in a way that maximizes benefits while minimizing impacts on people and nature.

What WWF Is Doing

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

The world is at a decision point for the remaining long free-flowing rivers, and WWF is positioned to guide development planning in a way that delivers on economic and energy needs while preserving and protecting rivers that are most critical to people and nature. To ensure a future with free-flowing rivers, WWF is undertaking a four-part strategy:

Promoting sustainable energy in the Mekong River

The Mekong River, flowing from the Tibetan Plateau through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam to the South China Sea, is home to spectacular biodiversity. It hosts the world’s most productive freshwater fishery supporting critical ecosystem goods and services for tens of millions of people.

Development of upstream dams, among other activities in the region, threaten the benefits delivered by the Mekong. WWF and partners have acted to support and promote a system-wide sustainable energy plan that promotes clean and renewable energy alternatives, contributing to the country’s energy goals without damming Cambodia’s remaining free-flowing rivers. For example, in 2019, WWF hosted the Cambodia Solar Energy Forum, bringing together public sector actors from the energy sector and potential investors and developers from China and other countries interested in investing in large-scale solar projects.

The 2019 drought in the Mekong region reinforced the need for sound and reliable energy sources, especially in a changing climate. Many in the region experienced rolling black-outs, due to lower river flows affecting power generation from hydropower plants. In May 2020, following the drought and solid evidence of the risks of mainstem dams, the Cambodian government put a 10-year moratorium on any new dams on the Mekong mainstem.

SUSTAINABLE BASIN AND ENERGY PLANNING, AND FINANCE

Rows of solar panels

WWF is supporting uptake of new development pathways, financial tools, and other incentives to shift development planning in ways that maximize economic and energy benefits while minimizing negative impacts on people and nature. Redirecting financial flows to bankable and sustainable renewable energy projects is a critical component of this workstream.


WWF also works closely with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) 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

If a river has been spared dam construction, it will remain vulnerable to future river-related infrastructure and other development decisions, as well as to impacts from over-extraction of water and pollution. To be maximally effective, protections of the most important free-flowing rivers need to be put in place. Where dams are built (i.e. avoidance is deemed not possible), mitigation interventions must be undertaken. WWF is piloting, documenting, and sharing various types of protection mechanisms to secure rivers around the world and best practices in working with local communities to ensure that benefits are realized at the site of the protected or conserved area.

ADVOCACY AND OUTREACH

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

WWF employs public advocacy and communications to advocate for policy change, to increase understanding of the impacts of unsustainable infrastructure and the potential for alternative energy and natural infrastructure solutions, and to raise awareness of the value of healthy, free-flowing rivers.

  • Stopping Damaging Dams: In 2019, building of dams were stopped on the Mura River in Slovenia and on the Luangwa River in Zambia.
  • Changing Public Perception: WWF designed Get the Grade to explain the complicated—but important—process of stakeholder engagement in natural resource management, and introduce the report card as an effective tool for bringing diverse water users together for better basin governance. The game both introduces the report card development process to participants and demonstrates the value of report cards.
  • Raising Awareness: The WWF Free Rivers App has reached more than two million people. It has been promoted by key allies, including UN Water and the World Bank’s water group, and showcased at conferences, such as Stockholm World Water Week and International River Symposium. In addition to this global and innovative tactic, WWF’s recent public advocacy campaigns to protect rivers that offer exceptional conservation and societal value in Zambia, Slovenia, and Argentina have earned over 375,000 signatures.

SCIENCE

Aerial view of a dam holding back a large river in Brazil

There is still much we don’t know about how rivers, wildlife, and human development interconnect and affect each other. WWF is continuing to measure the health of rivers and assess the efficacy of various policy, market, and community-oriented interventions in specific geographies and on the global scale. We are also working to ensure that sufficient data and high-quality metrics exist to ensure that rivers and their status are included in policy decision making at the local, national, regional, and global scales.

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

The publication in May 2019 of the paper on free-flowing rivers and a report on the renewable revolution led to significant media attention, including over 300 articles published in 20 countries and 6 languages. We are also a partner in Global Dam Watch, a group of organizations working to ensure that regularly updated and comprehensive global dam data are publicly available.

Projects

  • 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.

  • The Pantanal: Saving the world’s largest tropical wetland

    Recognizing the global importance of the Pantanal and the scale of the challenges it faces, Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay are participating in a transboundary effort to conserve and sustainably develop the world’s largest tropical wetland.