Where Rivers Run Free

Parineeta Dandekar

Policy Tools to Protect Free-Flowing Rivers

Patagonia’s free-flowing Baker River is under threat by dams.
Patagonia’s free-flowing Baker River is under threat by dams.
© Jorge Uzon

free-flowing rivers have become so rare that they would be classified as an endangered species if they were considered living things rather than merely support systems for all living things. In the past half-century or more, the world has seen the number of undammed rivers shrink dramatically. In ecological and cultural terms, the value of these free-flowing rivers is immense and growing, as more and more rivers are being dammed the world over.

What have we lost in the rush to dam our rivers? Of the world’s 177 largest rivers, only one-third are free flowing, and just 21 rivers longer than 1,000 km retain a direct connection to the sea. Damming has led to species extinctions, loss of prime farmland and forests, social upheaval, loss of clean water supplies, dessicated wetlands, destroyed fisheries and more.

Ecologically, free flowing rivers have huge significance. Natural flow levels support specific ecological functions, including groundwater recharge, nutrient balancing in soils, fish spawning, the movement of sediments, and more. For example, India’s  few remaining free-flowing and minimally modified rivers are the last refuges of culturally important and endangered fish species like Mahseer (Tor Species), Giant Catfish, Ganges River Dolphin, Snow Trout, and others. The Aghanashini River, free-flowing for its entire 121 km length, flows through the biodiversity hotspot of Western Ghats, and supports over 50 fish species, most of which are endemic.

At the same time, free-flowing rivers also provide innumerable community services like fisheries, land-replenishing silts, tourism and water supply, to name a few. The value of these ecological goods and services remain unaccounted for in many parts of the world.

Unfortunately, the nations building the most dams – India, China and Brazil – do not have legislation to protect the free flowing status of their rivers, and are not using the laws they do have to protect important rivers.  

A growing movement is working to protect these last lifelines from the onslaught of dams by working to pass laws that would protect free-flowing rivers.  A number of countries have devised ingenious legislative tools that are useful models for such efforts. One caveat: it is a major undertaking to get such policies and laws passed. In nearly all cases, many individuals and civil society organisations lobbied for them hard and long.  

Most of the countries that have set criteria for protecting free-flowing rivers have meticulously classified activities that can take place in various stretches of these rivers. Community participation and special attention to indigenous and traditional water rights are also highlights of these cases. Here is a brief look at some of the best examples.

Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, United States

The Taku River (Alaska and Canada) is being considered for protection under US and Canadian law.
The Taku River (Alaska and Canada) is being considered for protection under US and Canadian law.

“It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

This Act specifically “[d]eclares that the established national policy of dam and other construction at appropriate sections of the rivers of the United States needs to be complemented by a policy that would preserve other selected rivers or sections thereof in their free-flowing condition to protect the water quality of such rivers and to fulfill other vital national conservation purposes.”

The essence of this Act, adopted in 1968, is protection of the free-flowing character of the river. Free-flowing is defined as “existing or flowing in natural condition without impoundment, diversion, straightening, rip-rapping, or other modification of the waterway.”  
Each river is administered by either a federal or state agency, such as the Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service or National Park Service. A Wild and Scenic Rivers Council helps coordinate agencies that have interests in protecting or managing these rivers.

Jurisdiction of the states over their waters remains unaffected, so long as it does not interfere with the functioning of this law. Water rights of affected individuals are compensated.
The Act prohibits federal support for actions such as the construction of dams or other in-stream activities that would harm the river's free-flowing condition, water quality, or outstanding resource values.

As of 2009, the Act has protected more than 12,000 miles of 252 rivers across the nation. By comparison, more than 75,000 large dams across the country have modified at least 600,000 miles of American rivers.

The US also has an extensive  dam-decommissioning movement, which has helped restore many miles of rivers to their free-flowing state (see page 1 for latest updates).

Canadian Heritage Rivers System

“Canada’s outstanding rivers will be nationally recognized and managed through the support and stewardship of local people and provincial, territorial and federal governments to ensure the long-term conservation of the rivers’ natural, cultural and recreational  values and integrity.”
-Vision of Canadian Heritage River System Charter, 1997

The Canadian Heritage Rivers System (CHRS) was established in 1984 to conserve and protect the best examples of Canada’s river heritage, to give them national recognition, and to encourage the public to enjoy and appreciate them. It is a cooperative program of the governments of Canada, all 10 provinces, and the three territories.  Participation  is voluntary.

The system is governed by a Heritage Rivers Board which has members from the government as well as citizens. To be considered for inclusion in the system, a river must have outstanding natural, cultural and/or recreational values, a high level of public support, and a plan to ensure that those values will be maintained. One of the important (though not deciding) criteria is the “absence of human-made impoundments in the river course.”

The river is designated a Heritage River when a management plan, or heritage strategy, to ensure its outstanding natural, cultural and/or recreational values are protected, is lodged with the Board by the nominating government(s). This plan charts out important activities to be undertaken to protect the river like restoration, environment education, pollution treatment, etc. Production of a management plan or heritage strategy is based on public consultation and consensus.

Recently, a parliamentarian from North Alberta voiced strong opposition to an oil-sands project, which would draw water from the untouched Clearwater River. He was backed by strong support from his constituents and the Clearwater’s CHRS status.  

The CHRS not only works with free-flowing rivers, but also on highly developed rivers, to conserve their heritage. Currently, 38 rivers are designated as Heritage Rivers, while six more have been nominated. 

Wild Rivers Bill, Australia

This bill defines a Wild River as  one whose “biological, hydrological and geomorphological processes have not been significantly altered since European settlement.”
Many of Australia’s river systems were ravaged during the process of colonization and the development of modern Australia. Most of its river systems today are severely degraded due to over-extraction, pollution, catchment modification and river regulation.

The seeds of the Wild Rivers Campaign and the subsequent Act were sown during the Franklin River campaign, led by the Tasmanian Wilderness Society in the 1970s. Thanks to their tireless efforts, a huge hydropower dam on the Franklin River in Tasmania was stopped. After the campaign was over, the Wilderness Society’s efforts to protect the nation’s remaining untouched rivers continued.

The Wild Rivers Act was proposed in 1992, but sadly, never became national law. However, a similar law was passed in the Australian state of Queensland in 2005. 

According to the Queensland act, wild rivers must have all, or almost all, of their natural values intact. This does not necessarily mean that a river must be in pristine condition. The following elements are necessary to constitute a wild river:

  • Hydrology: The rivers are free-flowing and well connected to their floodplains and shallow aquifers.
  • Geomorphology: The bed and bank are stable with a natural movement of sediment along the river to estuaries and floodplains. 
  • Water quality: Sufficient to meet human and ecological needs. 
  • Riparian vegetation: Sufficient trees, shrubs and sedges to protect banks and provide food for fauna.
  • Wildlife corridors: Natural habitat along rivers to allow native animals to migrate within their natural ranges.
  • Water is a state subject in Australia, and each state has the right to manage its Wild Rivers however it deems fit.

A Wild River Area is mapped into different management areas, which have varying rules to guide development activities in the Wild Rivers Code.

Management areas include:

  • High Preservation Area: The buffer zone around the main watercourses and wetlands where ecologically destructive development like dams, irrigated agriculture and strip mining is prohibited. Lower-impact activities, such as grazing, infrastructure such as houses, and fishing are allowed.
  • Preservation Area: The remainder of the basin, where most development activity can occur as long as it meets requirements that minimize the impacts on the river system.
  • Floodplain Management Area: Important floodplain areas where the construction of levees and other flow-impeding development is regulated to protect the connectivity between this area and the main river channels.
  • Designated Urban Area: Areas where there is a town or village, so certain types of development are exempt from the Wild Rivers Code.

In practice this means that destructive developments like large dams, intensive irrigation, and mining cannot occur in sensitive riverine and wetland environments (in the High Preservation Area), while a range of other developments have to meet sensible requirements outlined by the Wild Rivers Code.

A Wild River declaration cannot occur without extensive community consultation. The formal consultation process is triggered when the government releases a draft declaration proposal. This includes releasing a draft map showing proposed management areas, and is followed by months of face-to-face meetings.

National Rivers, Sweden

According to the Swedish Ecologist Christer Nilsson, one of the pioneering champions of free-flowing rivers, a movement to protect the country’s last four major rivers from dams began in the late 1960s, following the damming of the majority of Sweden’s rivers. This was the first major environmental battle in Sweden.

The Swedish Government was pressured by this movement to protect these four rivers as National Rivers,. Today, the rivers Kalix, Torne and two others are national rivers, protected from any development.


It is high time that we learn the lesson that conservation is better than restoration. The need to protect our few remaining free-flowing rivers is very real and urgent. As a first step, ecologically and socially important stretches of our remaining free-flowing rivers should be identified. At the very least, rivers representing different ecological classes – high mountain, desert, and rivers with major cultural significance – should to be conserved.

Rivers whose water and sediment flows are not strongly affected by dams, which have not been embanked or channelized, which have good riparian health and water quality, which support important biodiversity and community services should be protected for the benefit of current and future generations.

The author is a researcher with SANDRP and Gomukh Trust, working on e-flows and assessment of ecological goods and services of free flowing rivers in India.  She writes on these issues at the India Water Portal.

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