Protecting Rivers, Reducing Climate Vulnerability

Peter Bosshard

The mountain valleys of the North Indian state of Uttarakhand have been heavily developed with hydropower projects, tourism resorts and other infrastructure. When a cloudburst hit the state in June 2013, the choked rivers were unable to cope with the ravaging floods. Flashfloods washed away hundreds of buildings, bridges and dams, claimed more than 5,000 lives and caused an estimated damage of $50 billion.

Climate change will bring more extreme weather events such as droughts and the cloudburst experienced in Uttarakhand. Healthy rivers and their floodplains act as natural buffers that protect us from the worst vagaries of a changing climate. Free-flowing rivers build the deltas and mangrove belts that protect our coastlines, preserve fisheries and forests, and recharge the groundwater reserves that sustain our water supply and agriculture. Floodplains, marshes, dunes, reefs and mangrove forests – often referred to as green infrastructure or bioshields – are vital to making our societies more climate resilient.

Climate change is water change. Learning from earlier flood disasters and preparing for climate change, governments, scientists and environmental organizations have started to remove levees and recreate floodplains on rivers such as the Rhine, the lower Yangtze and the lower Danube. Ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change is being promoted by forward-looking tools such as the EU Water Framework Directive and the UNECE Water Convention.

In spite of positive approaches, rivers – the arteries of our planet – are under mounting pressure around the world. More than 60% of the world's major rivers have been fragmented. Freshwater ecosystems face higher risks of species extinction than any other major ecosystem. Even so, China, South and Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America are currently experiencing unprecedented dam-building booms. Ironically, the infrastructure built today not only weakens the climate resilience of riverine ecosystems, but is in itself highly vulnerable to a changing climate.

Parineeta Dandekar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People warns: "Dammed rivers are damaged rivers; they are less able to protect us from climate change and more likely to worsen problems when big floods and droughts hit. We need honest and holistic cost-benefit analysis of dams to account for these climate change risks."

Collapsed 400 MW Vishnupryag Dam
Collapsed 400 MW Vishnupryag Dam
By Matu Jansangthan

A new report published by International Rivers offers guidance on how to strengthen climate resilience in the water and energy sectors. The guide explains how rivers act as natural climate buffers, how large dams increase the vulnerability to climate change, and how climate resilience can be integrated into water resource management and infrastructure planning. It was prepared with input from experts and partner organizations, and is addressed at civil society organizations. The new publication, which was written by Katy Yan and Lori Pottinger, includes a lot of concrete cases studies and practical advice for groups working in the water and energy sectors and confronted by dam projects.

John Matthews of Conservation International, one of the advisors to the new guide, comments: "Ecologically poorly designed water infrastructure is likely to reduce the inherent resilience and adaptive capacity of [developing] nations' ecosystems, permanently altering lakes, rivers, soils, and fisheries. Climate-infrastructure mismatches may actually make poor nations even poorer."

The new report equips civil society groups to advocate for infrastructure investments that strengthen rather than weaken the climate resilience of ecosystems and human societies. It will be complemented by a video, and used for civil society training workshops on climate resilience in different parts of the world. Contact Dipti Vaghela at International Rivers if you would like to host a training or suggest a translation of the new guide.

Civil Society Guide to Healthy Rivers and Climate Resilience, International Rivers, November 2013, 69 pages.

Monday, November 4, 2013