Staying safe, informed and active: Setting a new future for freshwater and rivers

Michael Simon
The questions on everyone’s minds are: How will we weather this pandemic? As we are all concerned for family and friends, we wonder when will our lives return to some sort of normal. When will it end? What will the world look like on the other side? To answer this last question, let me offer a vision that might otherwise be hard to conjure.

Imagine a world where our great rivers flow freely unsullied by plastic waste and industrial pollution. Where rivers teem with fish. The communities dependent on rivers thrive. Where vibrant freshwater ecosystems are unthreatened by mining or extractive water use. Where freshwater biodiversity is valued and vulnerable species protected.  Where rivers are governed inclusively, by those most invested in their protection rather than their exploitation. Where free-flowing rivers, connected floodplains, and healthy watersheds are recognized for the incredible value they play in keeping carbon locked away, while also nourishing biodiversity and sustainable agriculture.

Now is the time we can realize “alternative” futures. One that seemed a long way away just a few months ago. In many contexts returning to ‘normal’ is not the future we want at all. International Rivers and our supporters have long known the importance of alternatives for our rivers and freshwater resources. We’ve battled to make decision-makers appreciate just how possible the alternatives are. And now with today’s global disruption, this is a reality right at our fingertips.


But there is no doubt the disruption that is being felt throughout our societies, our businesses, and economies, is stark. In so many facets of our life, there is no going back. For our environment, and the peoples that rely on our rivers and natural systems for their food and economic security, the time is now. International Rivers and our partners are perfectly placed to map out this new future. But we need your help.

We have the opportunity to stimulate the change we need, and to see that sustained. For this, we need to have resilient communities. We need to speed dynamic
and flexible financial resources to the community partners we work with. And strong connections between peoples and movements. This is at the heart of the work of International Rivers, and today it takes on new importance. Our work, in partnerships and networks, links local initiatives and struggles to global and systemic change. Our role in connecting people, organizations, and campaigns, and together realizing a different future, has taken on a renewed urgency.

Its a vision International Rivers, its partners, and supporters like you have long gotten in behind...and advanced in surprising leaps and bounds over the years. And it's a vision that is that much easier to see somehow amid the terrible tragedy the coronavirus has wrought. Dams are coming down. Dams won’t be built. Renewables are on the ascent including solar, wind, and stronger storage capacity, while mega hydro is on the decline. Financing for energy is moving to technologies that deliver power cheaper and smarter, and with far less impact on our rivers and communities.

Countries are realizing that big energy development projects, that exploit our natural resource base and incur massive debt, run counter to their social, health, and political aims...and also ultimately to their economy’s bottom line. They know that going into billions of dollars in debt to produce energy is not sustainable. This is so much more clear now as we start to look forward to rebuilding economies and peoples’ lives in the aftermath of self-isolating and social-distancing. The air is clear and industrial pollution slowed. Energy systems that exploit our resources and contribute to the climate emergency are being rethought. The old mega hydro projects, with their devastating impact on our rivers, ecosystems, and river communities, must go the way of coal.

The world may never be the same. And we can foresee a more positive future for our planet,  But only if we are visionary, focused, and untiring in ensuring this tragedy is something we grow from, instead of proving an excuse for authoritarians, polluters, and financiers to perpetuate inequality and drive environmental and human rights abuse to enrich themselves and consolidate power.


International Rivers has offices and partners in some of the most volatile and vulnerable parts of the globe. Many of our partners, and the communities they work with day in day out, are persevering under lockdowns, as well as the collapse of jobs and supply chains. Where they can still access their rivers they have some safety net. But for communities already displaced,  such as those who have been displaced from dam collapses, forced resettlement, or floods, their lives have new insecurity with COVID.  Far too many lack access to food or functioning health systems, without safety nets like food banks and other volunteer services. They will be last in line for stimulus packages. Women, at the heart of many community responses now face new vulnerabilities from domestic violence and abuse. And many indigenous communities are excluded from the largely urban-based support schemes.

And what’s worse, the U.S., Brazilian, and other governments are using the distraction as an excuse for ramming through the easing of environmental protections and approval processes. Counter to the future we are envisioning, these States are justifying development and infrastructure at any cost as part of the economic recovery. Projects in some places are proceeding at a huge risk to populations. But there is a growing coalition of diverse stakeholders--including financiers, business, philanthropists and government--who foresee a different future.

So that’s why we’re tackling today’s circumstances on three fronts. First, we’re calling for a moratorium on new dams, and identifying that now--as we rebuild out of this global crisis--is the time for implementing the highest social and environmental standards for projects that are already operational. Second, we’re working with our networks to identify and expose new threats to rivers and river communities at this time. And three, we’re laying the groundwork for a more sustainable and just energy future that will see rivers protected, and communities central to the design and operations of energy systems.


In the coming weeks and months, I hope you’ll join us and our partners for online gatherings. Take critical actions to prevent disaster capitalism. Dig deep to support International Rivers and our partners in facing down current threats and strategizing toward a post-COVID world where what I described above is within our reach.


At this time, we are so lucky that we still have jobs and can stay focused on our mission. We have moved all our staff to work remotely and are banking some serious virtual meeting credit! We are reaching out through our networks and stimulating support where we have the capacity to do so. We will elevate the voice and stories of our partners and communities - to expose abuses, but also to celebrate creativity and innovation in realizing a new future as the pandemic is overcome.




Thursday, April 30, 2020