Farewell to International Rivers

Peter Bosshard
At the Rivers foir Life meeting in Thailand
At the Rivers foir Life meeting in Thailand

I have always admired International Rivers for being rooted in the experience of local communities and making their voices heard in the halls of global power. On December 22, I will leave the organization after almost 15 years on the team. It has been a wild, exciting and rewarding ride.

I still remember when I joined International Rivers on a balmy spring day in 2002. The iPod had just been released, Brazil was preparing for its fifth World Cup title, and Michael Moore was shooting his new movie, Bowling for Columbine. Closer to home, the independent World Commission on Dams had recently published a highly critical report about the impacts of large dams. The hydropower industry was launching a furious counter-attack against higher dam standards, and new dam builders from China, Brazil and India were getting ready to conquer the world’s watersheds.

Faced with numerous challenges, we worked hard just to stop the worst assaults on rivers from happening for many years. We brought hundreds of river defenders together in global meetings in Thailand and Mexico – gatherings that no participant will ever forget. With our partners, we launched new campaigns to save the Mekong, the Amazon and the Himalayan rivers, among many others. Personally, I didn’t only spend a lot of time in international conferences but had the chance to stay with and learn from local activists in Sudan and Brazil, India and Uganda, Pakistan and China.

Celebrating with Sudanese environmental activists
Celebrating with Sudanese environmental activists

Over the past 15 years, International Rivers has adapted to a changing world while staying true to our mission. We opened new offices in most of the regions where rivers are under threat – growing roots in these regions and becoming a truly global organization. We convinced Chinese dam builders to start adopting international environmental standards and to stay away from some of the worst projects. And we demonstrated again and again that in the latest wave of new mega-dams, the lessons of the past have not been learned.

Meanwhile, the tide has started turning. New capacity additions in hydropower have dropped by more than 40% since 2013, while wind and solar power have seen their breakthrough. Scientists have documented that hydropower is not a green and clean form of energy. Our network has made good use of the improved environment over the past year, stopping numerous destructive projects around the world in rapid succession.

And not too soon: Critical river ecosystems continue to be destroyed at a rapid pace. Freshwater species have on average lost more than 80% of their populations since 1970. Riverine communities continue to be displaced, and local activists pay an increasingly high price for their engagement. Dam builders, often in cahoots with repressive regimes, are bent on exploiting the last free-flowing rivers for short-term gain.

We have shown that we can win our fights, and I have great confidence that the new International Rivers team is up to the task. With our network of partners and supporters, International Rivers will continue to stop many destructive projects from being built, and will initiate a new era of permanent river protection. I am hopeful that in another 15 years, we will finally see governments taking down destructive dams in a growing number of countries. Your continued support for these efforts will be critical.

Party time at Rivers for Life
Party time at Rivers for Life

On February 1, I will join the Sunrise Project as the director of their Finance Program to launch a new campaign to accelerate the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy. I will stay in touch with International Rivers and join the organization’s advisory board.

For now I look back on the past 15 years with a lot of gratitude: To the dam-affected people in many countries who have opened their doors and entrusted their stories to me. To our partners around the world who have shared their wisdom, passion and friendship with me, and who have achieved so much with so little. To the donors who have put their confidence in our work and who understand that we can’t win the climate fight if we destroy our most endangered ecosystems in the process. To the dam builders in North and South who often viewed me as a tough opponent but not as a personal enemy. And most of all, to the great International Rivers team – our Board members and colleagues who with their inspiring work, generous support and personal friendship have made the past 15 years a defining period in my life.

You can continue to follow Peter Bosshard on Twitter at @PeterBosshard.

Monday, December 19, 2016