Protecting Freshwater Biodiversity: How International Rivers is addressing one of the great conservation challenges

Freshwater biodiversity has been called the "ultimate conservation challenge" due to its complex interweaving of upstream and downstream river ecosystems and communities1. While freshwater conservation receives less philanthropic support and media attention than conservation of other critical ecosystems, freshwater ecosystems are deteriorating at the fastest rate, with a decline of over 70% of wild species found in freshwater ecosystems in the past four decades.

International Rivers was created with the vision that rivers are essential to all life on the planet, and that dams are fragmenting rivers and ecosystems, driving an unprecedented loss of human livelihood, culture, and freshwater habitat and biodiversity. Water infrastructure has consistently been found to be among the leading causes of decline of freshwater biodiversity and ecosystems2. In particular, dams have been identified as one of the greatest threats to freshwater biodiversity at the global scale3.

In recognition of the critical importance of river ecosystem protection to freshwater biodiversity, the Arcadia Fund has recently awarded International Rivers a five-year, $1.25 million grant to further our work in freshwater biodiversity conservation. With Arcadia's support, we look forward to implementing our shared vision of protecting some of the world's pristine river ecosystems that are critical to freshwater life and community livelihoods. 

With over 3,000 megadams currently planned or in construction around the world, the stakes are incredibly high and the needs to be addressed are urgent. If all planned hydropower dams and dams currently under construction are completed, 300,000 km of additional unaffected riverine ecosystem will be lost—a 15% reduction from today’s total amount of unaffected rivers4. Biodiversity impacts are projected to be experienced  disproportionately in river basins with the highest freshwater species diversity—nearly 70 percent of all kilometers projected to be affected by fragmentation or regulation occur in freshwater ecoregions with the greatest diversity of fish species, such as the Amazon, Mekong and Magdalena.Within these high diversity basins, this represents a 22% decline in kilometers of river unaffected by dams.

To conserve these vital freshwater ecosystems, International Rivers takes a holistic approach to addressing the threat to freshwater biodiversity posed by water infrastructure and over exploitation. International Rivers seeks to protect riverine ecosystems by influencing how rivers are governed, how they are protected in law, and how they are valued through planning and management with the aim of ensuring that rivers are used sustainably and can continue to perform their critical biodiversity functions.

Achieving our goals for freshwater conservation will mean that:

  • Rivers can perform their critical ecosystem functions in an era of climate change.
  • Rivers provide the resources and natural abundance to support riparian community livelihoods.
  • Rivers, especially transboundary rivers, are governed by effective, transparent, accountable and participatory processes and institutions, which uphold the critical ecosystem functions of rivers and respect the rights of river communities.
  • Destructive dams proposed on river mainstreams, and destructive dams where other critical economic, social or environmental impacts cannot be avoided or mitigated, are stopped.
  • Rivers that are degraded by dams are re-regulated so that basin ecosystems–including watersheds, floodplains, groundwater, and delta and estuarine systems–can function. This means the way in which dams are operated may need to change, or that dams are decommissioned.

International Rivers’ work focuses on key biodiversity hotspots that have also been targeted for increased dam building. Our work directly contributes to the preservation of biodiversity in the following regionally specific contexts:

  • Amazon river and its tributaries in Brazil
  • Marañon and Magdalena rivers, and the broader Andes Amazon in Colombia
  • Patagonian rivers in Chile
  • Mekong river and its tributaries in China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia
  • Nu/Salween river in China, Thailand and Myanmar
  • Congo river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Teesta and Brahmaputra Rivers in China, India, Bangladesh

We have chosen these river basins for their extraordinary biodiversity value and for the immediate and pressing threats posed by hydropower development.  Our regional engagement is complemented by globally coordinated action and research to support freshwater biodiversity outcomes. In addition to International Rivers priority river basins, we also support a global network of actors working to support protection of other riverine ecosystems. 

The immense challenges posed to fragile freshwater ecosystems call for us to seize every opportunity available for increased river protection. We are hopeful that with the support of Arcadia Fund and others, we can bring attention to these quickly dissapearing ecosystems and species, to shift the tide toward increased protection and conservation of all forms of freshwater life. 

[1] Dudgeon, et. al, 2007
[2] Richter et al., 2010; McDonald et al., 2012; Reidy et al., 2012
[3] Vörösmarty et al. 2010
[4] Opperman, et. al 2015
[5] Abell et al., 2008

Thursday, November 1, 2018