Forever Wild: The Movement to Permanently Protect the World's Rivers

Rivers are the arteries of the earth, essential to all life and sustaining the highest rate of biodiversity compared to any other ecosystem on Earth. Rivers are also the most endangered ecosystem compared to terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

Over 30 years, International Rivers has stood with local and indigenous groups to stop or stall over 200 projects that would have destroyed river ecosystems and uprooted communities from their lands. Now, our partners are calling for a permanent solution to make sure that their rivers are never given up for sale. Using a variety of legal means, from river protection laws to treaty rights that  recognize the rights of rivers and the related indigenous and sovereignty rights, we are standing with local and indigenous communities to call for permanent river protection.

Rivers Under Attack

A dangerous combination of climate change, dams, diversions and pollution is transforming our rivers from vibrant waterways to stagnant dead zones. Freshwater ecosystems have lost an astonishing 81% of their aquatic populations since 1970, the highest rate for any ecosystem.

Altering our rivers has dire consequences for humans, too. Where rivers and wetlands are being destroyed, displacement, water scarcity and food insecurity loom, tearing tight-knit – and often previously self-sufficient – families and communities apart. Those who dare to stand up for their rivers often face persecution, or worse. 

Legal protections for natural resources and community rights to river waters are unclear, weak or insufficient, which leaves rivers and river communities vulnerable to pollution and damming. Permanent legal protections for ecologically and socially important and vulnerable river ecosystems are necessary to ensure the long-term health and viability of rivers and the communities that depend on them.

Protections need to be considered on a basin and catchment scale to ensure that watershed mountain and forest environments are included, as well as the floodplains, deltas, estuaries and near-shore coastal habitats. Changes to rivers through dams, other water infrastructure and extractions affect the system well beyond the immediate environs of the built structures.

The Fight for Rivers

One of the last places on earth with rivers that are still pristine and free-flowing is Chile’s Patagonia. When the Chilean government approved plans to dam Patagonian rivers for hydropower and mining, Chilean civil society and communities, joined by International Rivers and supporters like you, waged a ten-year long struggle to keep Patagonian rivers wild and free. In 2017, Chile cancelled the dams and the energy companies returned the rights to two of the rivers.

But our work is not over -- these rivers remain vulnerable to future projects. International Rivers and our partners are now proposing a law that will protect Patagonian rivers for good.

Chile is not alone in the vision to keep rivers wild and free-flowing. From the headwaters of the Amazon in Peru, to the Salween River in Myanmar, to the Cunene River in Namibia, our partners are similarly laying the groundwork for river protections. Together we are drawing on the work of recent river protection successes - visit our River Protection Case Studies compilation for more.

The True Value of Rivers

Rivers supply vital water and nutrients to agricultural land, floodplains and deltas, nourishing immense biodiversity and bringing water and food hundreds of millions of people around the world. They provide essential drinking water. They are sources of faith, spiritual traditions, ritual, songs and stories. They carry the history of human civilization in their rippling waters.

Yet in 2016, the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy found that “a relatively small fraction of the world’s nations have formal, legal mechanisms specific to river protection.” This problem has been compounded by governments and global decision-makers who have often overlooked rivers in their conservation work. Other protected areas, such as forests, rarely if ever include “durable protection” for the rivers located within them. In many places, such as the Balkans and Himalayas, dam developers are actually proposing new dams within protected areas.

Permanent legal protections are necessary to ensure the long-term health and viability of rivers and the communities that depend on them. Decision-makers must also recognize that dams, other water infrastructure, pollution and extractions affect the system well beyond the immediate environs. Protections must be considered on a basin and catchment scale to ensure that watershed mountain and forest environments are included, as well as the floodplains, wetlands, deltas, estuaries and near-shore coastal habitats. 



Our strategies

There’s no single way to pursue permanent protection for rivers. In some countries, rivers can be protected through creating a law or a decree, by creating national parks where waterways are protected in addition to land and forests, or by complying with existing legislation and policies. Across the regions where we work, we use the following approaches to inform locally-developed strategies:

  • Create precedent: We work with lawyers to prepare legal briefs to inform the drafting of river protection laws or to recommend other forms of permanent protection. Lawyers also work with us to set up legal pathways, including identifying possibilities for establishing laws or for strengthening protections.
  • Build coalitions: We believe that informed communities and river protection movements are key: These are the people who will speak about why their rivers need protection and will help support legislation and or other protective measures. We have also created a Google group called “Rights of Rivers” (write to to distribute information. 
  • Research: Technical, scientific and social studies are needed to develop criteria for designation. Studies help us get acquainted with the special characteristics of a river or river basin and the benefits provided by specific river ecosystems. Informed decision-makers are key, and river defenders should develop a power analysis for achieving the groundswell of political support needed for river protection.

The Rights of Rivers 

Our rivers don't stop at borders, and many of our rivers, aquifers and freshwater resources are shared between nation states. Yet the vast majority of our shared rivers still lack agreements around management and governance at a basin scale.

Only a few shared water resources are governed by agreements between states. The Danube, the Mekong and the Nile are all governed by some sort of international agreement or treaty, but these agreements suffer from significant gaps and weaknesses, such as not including all riparian states, or being limited in their mandate and scope vis-a-vis today's water challenges. Many lack clarity or real teeth in how they guide decision-making on the use of waters, or on developments and infratsructure that affect the quality and quantity of water, or its equitable use between states.

In 1997, a hundred of the world's governments adopted the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Water Courses, and in 2014 it entered into force when Vietnam signed as the 35th member. This framework convention is a critical piece of the global architecture to recognise the value of shared rivers,

The Declaration in Actionand provides important guidance on their protections. Yet because so few states have ratified it, its value remains largely unrealized.

The Earth Law Center, based in New York City, is working to transform the law to “recognize and protect nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve.” To this end, the organization has drafted a Universal Declaration of River Rights – an international document that defines the basic rights to which all waterways are entitled, as determined by both international legal precedent and ecological principles of river health.

This declaration has already been used as the basis for a law in Mexico City. In December 2017, the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District included the rights of waterways within the Water Sustainability Law of Mexico City (“Ley de Sustentabilidad Hídrica de la Ciudad de México”). In drafting this key provision, lawmakers adapted parts of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of River. The law now only awaits the final step of publication in the Official Gazette of Mexico City in order to go into effect.

This landmark water law recognizes that rivers, channels and streams possess a right to flow, a right to avoid harmful alterations to ecosystems and biodiversity, a right to be free from contamination, and a right to rescue and rehabilitate important water zones, among others.

River Rights Strategies

Strategies for establishing the rights of rivers include the following:

  • Pass a national or regional law that recognizes the rights of all rivers (note that rivers often implicate federal law).
  • Pass a law recognizing the rights of a single river (such as New Zealand’s Whanganui River).
  • Establish new (or revive old and forgotten) treaty rights between a federal government and an indigenous group that recognize the rights of rivers and the related indigenous rights, including sovereign rights.
  • Go to the courts to enforce the rights of rivers – whether by filing a lawsuit (high risk, high reward – with the risk being setting bad precedent if you lose) or amicus brief. The Earth Law Center has a template amicus brief available in multiple jurisdictions on behalf of the rights of rivers. Just as human rights are inherent to our existence, so too do rivers possess inherent rights, as evidenced in Colombia with the Atrato River.  
  • Pass a generic “rights of nature” law that recognizes the inherent rights of all ecosystems, including rivers and watersheds. Enforce the generic rights of nature law to protect rivers. This is the approach in Ecuador, where the Vilcabamba River was ordered to be restored to health based on its rights under the country’s constitution.