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.
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.
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.
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.
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.