What Future For the World’s Rivers?

Peter Bosshard
Wednesday, May 6, 2015

By the mid-1980s, river activists in the US had achieved considerable success. Congress had passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, and a growing number of dams were being removed to bring rivers back to life. Yet internationally, challenges were mounting. Dam builders were promoting huge projects on China’s Yangtze River, in India’s Narmada Valley, in the rainforest of Sarawak and many other places. They were often supported by the World Bank and by governments that had stopped building dams at home.

Against this background, a group of Californian activists in 1985 launched the International Dams Newsletter, a journal from which International Rivers Network (our original name) soon grew. Their goal was “to help citizen’s organizations that are working to change policies on large dam construction throughout the world.” At International Rivers, we have pursued this goal with passion, tenacity and expertise over the past three decades. We have helped create a strong international network of dam fighters and river activists, and established a global presence in key dam-building regions, with six offices around the world.

Rivers Unite Us! Chinese rier activists make a statement at one of China's rare undammed rivers to celebrate the 2015 International Day of Action for Rivers.
Rivers Unite Us! Chinese rier activists make a statement at one of China's rare undammed rivers to celebrate the 2015 International Day of Action for Rivers.
Photo by International Rivers

Together with our partners, we have stopped several destructive mega-dams, delayed many others, and discouraged yet more destructive projects from being proposed in the first place. We have empowered local communities and NGOs to stand up for their rights, and initiated a visionary framework for future decision-making through the World Commission on Dams. Maybe most importantly, we have put the value of healthy rivers and the serious impacts of large dams on the agenda for public debate.

After a lull, the demands of a growing middle class around the world have caused a new boom in dam building. Currently, no less than 3,700 hydropower projects are under construction or in the pipeline. Among the hotspots of this latest wave of dam building are the Amazon, the Brahmaputra, the La Plata, and the Mekong basins and the rivers of the Balkans. Governments and financiers can no longer deny the serious social and environmental impacts of large dams. In most cases they are however only taking token measures to address these impacts in their decision-making.

The need to move away from fossil fuels makes it easier to argue for the construction of more hydropower plants. Yet rivers and wetlands already belong to the ecosystems most affected by the loss of biodiversity, and we can’t allow ourselves to destroy the planet’s arteries in order to save her lungs. Hydropower projects are highly vulnerable to the vagaries of climate change, and better solutions are usually available.

Solar power is turning from a hope for the future into a powerful game changer. When we started our work in 1985, solar panels cost $12 per watt (in today’s dollars), and 23 megawatts of solar capacity had been installed around the world. Today, solar panels cost 36 cents per watt and 23 megawatts of solar power is installed every five hours. At the global scale, more solar power than hydropower has been developed since 2010, and prices continue to tumble.

Dam proponents argue that hydropower reservoirs are needed to balance wind and solar power, which are variable and intermittent. Yet the cost of clean battery storage is dropping so fast that reservoirs will not be necessary to balance solar and wind power within five years – before today’s planned dams can even be completed. Given the unlimited potential of solar power, financial analysts predict that large, centralized power plants will become “the dinosaur of future power generation: too big, too inflexible, not even relevant for backup power in the long run.”

If we could look back from International Rivers’ 50-year anniversary, we think that large hydropower dams may then look as obsolete as the clunky mainframe computers and landline telephone systems of the 20th century. Yet many decision-makers at governments and international financial institutions still work with the mindsets of the 20th century. Government regulations, bank guidelines and the curricula of engineering schools still favor the large, centralized projects of the past. And of course, projects currently in the pipeline will do irreversible damage to many great rivers if they are all built over the next 10 years.

As we look toward the future on the occasion of International Rivers’ 30th anniversary, we will stick to our strengths in many areas. We will continue to defend the world’s rivers with passion, tenacity and expertise. We will continue to inject the stark realities from the ground into international debates about water and energy development. And we will continue to strengthen our presence in the hotspots of global river protection, working with an international network of partner groups and social movements.

In other ways, we will adapt to a changing environment. Climate change is affecting all of us, and we will need to strengthen our public education efforts about the havoc climate change is already wreaking on rivers and dams. We will monitor the rapid evolution of renewable energy alternatives, and press for planning and decision-making processes that fully embrace these new solutions.

We will make more efforts to understand and defend the value of whole river basins, rather than protecting rivers one dam at a time. We plan to pay particular attention to the Amazon, Congo, Brahmaputra, Nu/Salween and Mekong basins. These rivers have very high rates of biodiversity and have so far remained largely undammed, but their tributaries and mainstems have become hotspots of the current dam-building boom. If we can keep dam builders in check and promote better solutions in these five priority basins, we can pass on some of the world’s most valuable rivers to our children and grandchildren. We will also introduce a model for other important basins around the world.

“We must not replicate the mistakes of the past,” the founders of International Rivers declared as they published that first issue of the International Dams Newsletter. “We must change the direction of water development now.” International Rivers will remain committed to this mission as we enter into our fourth decade. We look forward to having you with us.

Activists from "Paddling with a Purpose" and Conservamos por la Naturaleza celebrated the 2015 International Day of Action for Rivers in Lunahuaná, Peru.
Activists from "Paddling with a Purpose" and Conservamos por la Naturaleza celebrated the 2015 International Day of Action for Rivers in Lunahuaná, Peru.
Photo courtesy of Paddling with a Purpose