Executive Director Commentary

Jason Rainey

Every river has its people, and a river’s people all have stories to tell.

World Rivers Review has collected 25 years worth of such stories. As the new Executive Director of International Rivers, I’m catching up on the distinguished history of our movement as told in the back-issues of this publication. I’m also keenly interested in where the broader movement for economic justice, human rights and living rivers is headed and how to best leverage the unique and effective niche in which International Rivers continues to flourish.

International Rivers has regional staff based in Brazil, Thailand, India and southern Africa and each summer we gather for our annual convergence in our California office. This is a time when we roll up our sleeves for the very real work of implementing our newly adopted 5-year Strategic Plan – a roadmap for remaining nimble, effective and pro-active at a time of unprecedented threat to the world’s last, great rivers and the communities that depend upon them. As a new member of the team, our convergence has given me an opportunity to hear the stories of struggle and success from watersheds around the world. In speaking with our regional campaigners I’m reminded that the fight for healthy rivers is “ground zero” in the movement to safeguard the Earth’s biological diversity. More than any other type of ecosystem on the planet, freshwater environments are experiencing the greatest loss of biodiversity during this era of accelerated species extinction. By working to ensure that our rivers stay connected – to their headwaters, to their fertile floodplains, to their delta wetlands – we’re protecting biodiversity hotspots and world heritage rivers in places such as the Amazon, Zambezi and Nu (Salween) river basins.

We advocate for healthy rivers to compel sustainable energy planning in a changing climate. In Africa, I’m learning about drought-induced energy shortages hitting cities like Nairobi, Accra, Addis and others. A dam-building boom in Africa has left the continent too “hydropower dependent,” and climate change threatens to worsen the situation. Despite the obvious benefits of  diversifying energy production with truly sustainable sources such as solar and wind, African governments  are instead scheming for more dams on the Zambezi, Nile and Omo rivers. Each has grave consequences for the people of these rivers, and all would squander billions of dollars in the dead-end technology of dammed rivers.

I’m being reminded that the fight for healthy rivers is the struggle for food security. From our Southeast Asia office, International Rivers continues to coordinate the Save the Mekong Coalition, organizing activists and educating decision-makers in four countries about the threat posed by the Xayaburi Dam in Laos and other dams proposed for the Mekong. While the illegal construction of this first dam proposed for the mainstream of the lower Mekong begins, the protein source for 60 million who rely on the fisheries of the Mekong River and delta hangs in the balance.

In my first weeks on the job, I’m also sharing my experience as an advocate for healthy rivers in California, a state with the largest, and arguably most complex, publicly funded water infrastructure program in the world. And the story of my “home river” is the story of the birth of modern California. I was raised in one of the more notorious dam-affected communities in the US, and my earliest experiences have been influenced by both the historical legacy of early industrial-scale river destruction and the local community’s ongoing fight against newly proposed hydropower dams on the South Yuba River in the 1970s and 1980s.

I’m joining International Rivers at a remarkable time in the organization’s long history. After 25 years, we've developed impressive expertise: we work at the policy nexus of climate, energy and water, we “follow the money” and engage in the complexities of international financial institutions, and we continue to hold the most comprehensive understanding of the cascading social, economic and ecological impacts of damming great rivers. Coupled with our gritty campaigning and big-tent approach to movement-building, International Rivers is uniquely positioned to contribute to truly sustainable solutions to protecting biodiversity, providing energy access to rural communities, supporting democracy and promoting food security.  

In the coming months I’ll begin field visits to our Regional Offices and I’ll hear stories directly from dam-affected communities fighting for healthy rivers, despite enormous pressure and intimidation from dam profiteers.  I look forward to adding my voice and perspective, to help amplify these stories both in these pages of World Rivers Review and through my blog. Thank you.