Free-flowing rivers are the freshwater equivalent of wilderness areas.
What is a free-flowing river?
A free-flowing river is largely unaffected by human-made changes to its flow and connectivity. Water, silt, and other natural materials can move along unobstructed. Animals, such as river dolphins and migratory fish, can swim up and down stream at will. And the river itself can swell and shrink naturally, flow at an organic volume and rate, and replenish groundwater sources.
Where are the world’s free-flowing rivers?
Most of the world’s longest rivers have been dammed or otherwise altered. Most long, free-flowing rivers remain only in remote areas that are difficult to be exploited economically (e.g. Arctic), in less developed regions (e.g. Congo), or in places where political conditions make it difficult to build hydropower (e.g. Myanmar).
Why are free-flowing rivers important?
Click on the numbers in the illustration to learn more.
1. Floodplain Agriculture
Connected rivers support sediment transfer to healthy floodplains, which help reduce risks from floods and droughts and provide critical habitats and food sources for animal and plant life. Sediment can also be carried all the way downstream to deltas, which is particularly important as sea levels rise.k
In places around the world, free-flowing rivers hold cultural and spiritual importance.k
Pristine scenery and natural flows often offer recreational and business opportunities, including rafting, fly-fishing and wildlife watching.k
4. Plant and Animal Life
Rivers with high connectivity are among the most ecologically important freshwater habitats, places where vulnerable species can thrive and adapt to climate change.k
5. Fish Stocks
Tens of millions of people depend on freshwater fish populations, many of which require certain natural conditions, such as seasonal flows and temperature changes, in order to breed and thrive.k
7. Sediment Transfer
Sediment helps build up and maintain deltas. Without it, deltas will succumb to rising sea levels.k
6. Natural river flows recharge vast networks of underground water, which are increasingly strained by growing human demands.k
What prevents a river from flowing freely?
Infrastructure is the biggest culprit in interfering with the flow of a river.
What is WWF doing?
WWF hopes to maintain or increase the number of free-flowing rivers by:
Stopping dams that would devastate communities and wildlife that depend on them
Strengthening and promoting laws that successfully protect rivers
Helping local leaders develop sustainable energy plans that minimize the need for hydropower
Reconnecting rivers through dam removal and other restoration efforts
Learn more about free-flowing rivers with our augmented reality app WWF Free Rivers.