Why river connectivity matters

WWF's Connected Rivers of Resilience initiative tackles free-flowing rivers under threat

aerial view of Long Singut community river basin_Malaysia

Across the globe, free-flowing interconnected rivers are under threat. Even the mightiest river flows vary in quantity and quality from year to year, affected by droughts, infrastructure like dams, pollution, increases in extraction, and overfishing. And increasingly, the climate crisis is challenging landscapes, people, and wildlife through its impacts on water.

When we lose connected rivers, we also lose the benefits they provide to people and nature— food from fisheries and floodplain agriculture, water supplies from recharged groundwater sources, delivery of sediments and nutrients to downstream floodplains and deltas, and the many recreational, cultural, and spiritual values that come with healthy river systems. To stop or remedy the damage we have caused, we must take action in places where these rivers are most at risk.

At the heart of this work lies a four-pillar approach, each focusing on different aspects of river conservation and management: Plan, Protect, Restore, and Promote Resilience

PLAN: Sustainable Water and Energy Planning

Throughout history, people have altered natural river flows through dams, levees, channels, and diversions. These projects helped expand agricultural areas, produce enormous amounts of energy, control floods, bring drinking water across vast distances, transport goods and people, and ensure ample water supply for industrial production. But the infrastructure that has fueled development, especially if left unchecked, also jeopardizes the resources and natural infrastructure people rely on.

WWF provides research, data, and policy pathways to shift development planning towards more sustainable options. For example, in Nepal, WWF conducted studies to assess energy options prioritizing freshwater values, providing information that can help the government avoid negative environmental impacts. Similarly, in Zambia, WWF joined with local communities, leaders and the tourism industry to advocate to stop the Ndevu Dam, while supporting system scale approaches for identifying options for energy provision that keep rivers healthy.

PROTECT: Protection Policies & Governance

Rivers cannot save themselves from the demands we place on them. Traditional protection measures only go so far, given the flow of rivers from source to sea. With only 17% of the world’s free-flowing rivers inside protected areas, much of the length of these rivers—and the communities, species, and landscapes that rely on them—are at tremendous risk. WWF and our partners advocate for protection of critically important freshwater connectivity corridors and habitats, accelerate sustainable finance solutions to achieve durable conservation, and ensure the representation of freshwater systems and species in protected areas. We also conserve river connectivity, floodplains, and groundwater recharge.

In a major triumph for freshwater conservation, the entire free-flowing Bita River basin was designated a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention—an intergovernmental treaty that that provides the framework for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. Today, work is continuing in the Bita River Basin to keep it free flowing by implementing ongoing monitoring and research, establishing conservation agreements with local landowners, improving land management governance, promoting sustainable production systems, and engaging in capacity building with local communities. WWF is also bringing together diverse stakeholders to identify high conservation value stretches of the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers in India and work toward their protection.

RESTORE: Restoring River Connectivity

Rivers and their floodplains have the potential to act as shock absorbers to climate change, but only if we restore their natural connectivity or incorporate hybrid infrastructure that allows natural processes to occur. Intact or restored healthy rivers and associated wetlands are among the best buffers against the worsening impacts of the climate crisis.

We have the science and tools to restore wetlands, reconnect streams and rivers with their floodplains so they can help refill groundwater stores, buffer against flooding, and create, maintain, and expand wetlands and associated biodiversity. WWF is expanding freshwater projects to emphasize climate resilience and adaptation, like in Pakistan and the Pantanal. This expansion of work is aligned with the country-led Freshwater Challenge which aims to restore 300,000 km of degraded rivers and 350 million hectares of degraded wetlands by 2030.

PROMOTE RESILIENCE: Science & Thought Leadership

WWF conducts research, develops methodologies, and shares best practices globally. For instance, WWF led the scientific process to define free-flowing rivers globally, identifying threats and conservation priorities. Additionally, WWF's Environment & Disaster Management team provides guidance on natural flood risk management through initiatives like the Flood Green Guide.

WWF's Connected Rivers of Resilience Initiative represents a bold and holistic approach to river conservation. As we navigate the rapids of environmental challenges, WWF's initiative serves as a beacon of hope for the future of our planet's freshwater ecosystems.