Healthy Rivers for All


Canoes in Big Bend National Park

We don’t know enough about water. We depend on freshwater resources every day, but the impacts of our actions, the current status of ecosystem health, and the role of climate change are rarely measured or available in a format most people can understand. This knowledge gap allows decisions about water management to be made without adequate information, behind closed doors, and often at the expense of the basin’s health and most vulnerable communities.

But when information about basin health is synthesized and delivered via a public platform, people are empowered and can take action.

Basin report cards provide that platform. Developed from the ground-up and rooted in science, report cards identify what is most important to the diverse water users in a given basin, create a common understanding of the basin’s health, and foster a shared vision for its future. Armed with information that anyone can understand, these stakeholders can then advocate for decisions that maintain or improve their freshwater resources—and all of the benefits these resources provide.

WWF and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences (UMCES) seek to empower stakeholders around the world to develop and effectively use credible, locally owned report cards in their basins, fostering sustainable water management across basins around the world.

How healthy is the Upper Rio Grande?

Water overuse, infrastructure, changes in the amount of rainfall, increased temperatures, and the climate crisis are decreasing the amount of water that has historically flowed consistently in the Rio Grande.

A sunny day over a bend in the Rio Grande River with trees and a rocky beach

Why It Matters

  • All life needs water. It is the world’s most precious resource, fueling everything from the food we eat, to the cotton we wear, to the energy we depend upon. Unfortunately, freshwater systems around the world are increasingly at risk. Securing water for people and nature cannot happen alone, and it cannot happen in a vacuum. Basin report cards will help revolutionize how communities, conservationists, governments, businesses, and international development organizations collaborate on freshwater resources, facilitating a water-secure future for all.

  • Most water problems are governance problems. We can’t expect better decisions to be made about water without the appropriate tools and understanding; report cards provide both.

  •  Freshwater species are declining at an average of 76%—far faster than their marine or terrestrial counterparts, according to the 2014 Living Planet Index. Around the world, almost all freshwater ecosystems are impacted by human activity in one way or another. Report cards can track the status of important species and systems over time.

  • Almost a billion people suffer from hunger; 768 million live without a safe, clean water supply; and, 2.7 billion depend on traditional sources of energy such as wood as their main fuel for cooking and heating. Providing everyone with the food, water and energy they need is already a daunting prospect, and climate change and the continued depletion natural resources will further exacerbate the situation. Report cards can help identify the current status and interconnectivity of these needs, all of which depend on a healthy, well-managed freshwater basin.

  • River basins are vital for economic growth—but only if water threats are addressed. According to a study commissioned by HSBC, the economic output of the world's 10 most populous river basins will exceed that of the US, Japanese and German economies combined by 2050—but only if they get water right. Report cards can articulate shared water risks and opportunities in a way that both the public and private sectors can understand and act on.

What WWF Is Doing

Looking down the Orinoco River in Colombia

With the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), we are developing, packaging, and sharing a process that helps stakeholders create science-based report cards in their own basins with the right buy-in on-the-ground and credibility globally, so they can better manage resources for the protection of fresh water they depend upon.

Creating Report Cards in Key Basins

In basins around the world, we are helping to bring diverse water users together to create report cards. We begin by identifying shared values that depend on their system’s health—including social and economic benefits—then help them understand how to best measure and track the status of these values over time. Using existing data—and finding creative solutions when necessary—the grades are then determined and shared. Through this collaborative process, stakeholders develop a common understanding of the basin’s health and shared vision for its future, empowering them to demand management of their freshwater resources to protect shared values. WWF recently completed an assessment of the Colombian Orinoco River Basin.

Open-Sourcing a Proven Process

Building on over a decade of experience, together we are expanding and documenting University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's (UMCES) report card development process. We will then share the process openly through a suite of guidance materials and take other actions to hand report card development to local stakeholders while ensuring credibility. This will facilitate reliable report card development in basins around the world.

Tackling the Greatest Challenges

By carefully selecting our test basins, we are identifying multiple strategies to overcome the barriers common to report card creation, which we will also share in the guidance materials. This will ensure credible report cards can be developed even in the face of changing climate, data- or resource-limited situations, national or transboundary basins, and regions where there is not broad support for civic engagement or conservation measures.

Building Toward Global Goals

In addition to driving better water governance locally, widespread adoption of report cards will help counties deliver on several global commitments. For example, report cards can help measure progress and drive action towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and can monitor factors of basin resilience, which is important for the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) processes.

'Get the Grade' Game

People play Get the Grade

Serious games are emerging as an effective way to communicate complex information in an engaging, memorable way. WWF designed Get the Grade to do exactly that: 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 demonstrate the value of report cards.


  • Cuando River Basin Report Card

    The Cuando River Basin report card aims to strengthen transboundary water governance and inclusive decision-making mechanisms across the four countries that the basin traverses.

  • 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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