Paddling Upstream

Jason Rainey

Every day I encounter stories of hope and inspiration from people who are successfully organizing for rivers and their futures as “River People.” 

Yet the challenge facing the world’s rivers are great, the consequences are stark and the window of opportunity for protecting them is narrowing.

As an organization and as part of a global network of civil society movements, International Rivers has been surveying the wild waters ahead:  reading the currents, observing the gradient, and doing our best to predict what lies around the next bend in the river. 

Yet with an unprecedented global dam rush bearmg down on the remaining free-flowing rivers, we’re paddling upstream against a torrent. Indeed, in the course of single human lifespan, we have so fragmented river systems—and their connection to meadows, floodplains and even the ocean—that we’re teetering near a critical tipping point for sustaining freshwater biodiversity, riparian-based livelihoods, and the connectivity of essential planetary cycles. The next three to five years will be pivotal for our movement, and in turn for the fate of the world’s rivers. 

Here’s a brief preview of what our network of supporters and allies can expect from International Rivers over the coming year.

With our courageous allies in Southeast Asia, we’ll continue to push for a 10-year moratorium on the first dam proposed on the mainstem of the lower Mekong River, defending the world’s most productive freshwater fishery and the tens of millions of people the river nourishes. 

We’ll be standing side by side with the people of the Amazon to fight the Belo Monte monster dam, and prepare for pending confrontations over the industrialization of the planet’s biggest, and perhaps most iconic, river.  As I write, the Brazilian government is working to roll back legal protections of Amazonia National Park and other conservation units to clear legal hurdles to ease the way for dams proposed on the Tapajos River, a major Amazon tributary.

In Africa – a place of great hydrological uncertainty – we’ll work to ensure that proposed large dams take into account the risks of a changing climate. We’ll also be asserting a plan for addressing the continent’s terrible energy poverty – a plan that protects African rivers, which serve as lifelines for the great majority of Africans.

While we resist destructive projects, we’ll also paddle our way “upstream,” to change the economic and legal drivers that  are the source of the torrent of global dam-building we now face.

As our cover story reveals, International Rivers is working the World Water Forum in France to shine a light on a concerted campaign by global energy corporations to greenwash dams through a bogus industry-created “sustainability” certification program.

Another dishonest booster of big dams will be in our sights in the coming year. “Carbon trading” is incentivizing destructive hydropower schemes across the globe—dam projects that are ruinous for rivers, perilous for people, and run counter to greenhouse gas reduction goals. 

We’ll also follow the money back to Brazil for Earth Summit 2012 in June.  Also known as “Rio +20”, International Rivers will work to put rivers on the agenda in Rio, as we join with civil society organizations from across the globe calling for community-led, not corporate-driven, solutions for energy access and water security for all.

We’ll also continue our constructive engagement with the world’s biggest dam-builder, China.  Our dialogue with Chinese dam builders has resulted in the adoption of environmental and social standards that bring Sinohydro, the world’s largest dam-builder, up to international norms.  With roughly 290 large dam projects being planned, designed or constructed outside its borders, we’ll work to compel Chinese dam-builders to meet their new commitments and reconsider their most destructive dam projects.

Looking even further upstream, there’s still no approach for a global conservation plan for safeguarding the world’s remaining natural rivers.  Even at the national level, there are very few countries with a mechanism for legal protection for the most outstanding natural rivers within their borders, and the innumerable “services” that well-functioning rivers provide to our economy and ecology.   We’ll continue to help our partners  bring these approaches into their national policy debates. 

Paddling upstream on these issues will require creative thinking and quick action.  Together, we’ll need to find the seams in the swift moving current, keep our boats in synch, and sometimes get out of the water and march when necessary. We’ll also need more paddles in the water—please join us in the great push to move upstream to the source of these issues.