Healthy Rivers Feed the World

In the United States, we give gratitude for abundance every November. But while Thanksgiving may be an American holiday, it’s not a uniquely American notion: All over the world, agricultural peoples have always given regular thanks for the bounty that sustains them, recognizing that their wellbeing depends on the health of the natural world. 

We are reminded of this every day with the Standing Rock uprising, which is facing increasingly violent repression for defending their drinking water from an oil pipeline. And I was reminded of this on a recent trip to the Mekong River in Chiang Khong, where I met a longtime Thai educator and river activist known as P’Kruti.

A wiry character with an easy laugh and boundless energy, P’Kruti leads Thailand’s Mekong School for Local Knowledge, an organization dedicated to educating local and international students about the Mekong River. As we sat looking over the wide brown expanse of the Mekong, P’Kruti described the astonishing abundance of the river just a decade ago. “If we wanted fish for dinner,” he said, “we’d go down and catch them right before we ate.” The annual fish migration was cause for celebration and thanksgiving every year.  

In the last decade, however, gates closed on Chinese dams upstream and the Mekong’s flow changed dramatically. The river was deep one day, shallower the next. It ran clear when it should have been thick with nutrient-rich sediment, and vice versa. All this had an effect on the fish: “These days,” says P’Kruti, “a fisherman with nets on the river all day would be lucky to catch a single fish.” 

Local communities, which had developed 63 different nets for fishing in the river during different times of year, suddenly found that all their specialized tools were useless. Just five years ago, over a hundred fishing boats would gather at Chiang Khong’s docks each morning to catch fish. Now there are none.

The decline P’Kruti describes is familiar to people all over the world. Dams and pollution have decimated the world’s freshwater species. The latest studies confirm what our partners all over the world have documented for years: A new WWF report has found that we’ve lost a shocking 81% of all our freshwater populations since 1970 because of dam building and other factors.

And this loss matters, because hunger follows in its wake.

All over the world, rivers feed people. The Mekong River alone feeds over 55 million people in Southeast Asia. Globally, freshwater fish can feed up to 550 million people. And the vast majority of the world’s fish catch – marine and freshwater, commercial and recreational – relies on river estuaries at some point during its life cycle.  

Rivers also sustain some of the world’s most productive and fertile farmland. In the Mekong region, the annual monsoon rains have built a natural system reliant on high wet season flows, rich with nutrients and sediment, connecting rivers with floodplains and agricultural lands. All along the Mekong, people grow food on the riverbanks; its fertile delta is known as the rice bowl of Southeast Asia.

Rivers – and their floods – sustain a vibrant food system. It’s no coincidence that rivers like the Nile, Yangtze, Tigris and Euphrates have served as the cradles of our civilizations. 

When rivers are healthy and free-flowing, the people who live on them – and who can access them for food – don’t go hungry. To ensure food security in an era of climate change, we must protect the healthy rivers we have, and restore more rivers to health. 

It is possible. Earlier this year, the Munduruku indigenous peoples of the Amazon gained a huge win for food security when the Brazilian government canceled the São Luiz do Tapajós Dam. A mosaic of protected areas and indigenous lands, the Tapajós basin is home to approximately 820,000 people, including 10 indigenous groups. As other experiences in the Amazon have shown, this dam would have led to a massive fish die-off.

Thousands of miles away, in Washington State, decimated fish stocks are bouncing back with the removal of two dams on the Elwha River. Now that the river is running freely, fish populations are the highest they’ve been in 30 years, and Chinook salmon are returning to the river by the thousands. Scientists have been amazed by the pace of change.

It is not too late to save our rivers, and all the abundance they sustain. As Arnaldo Kabá, chief of the Munduruku, says, “The Tapajós Valley is our supermarket, our church, our office, our school, our home, our life.” 

Kabá speaks for millions who depend directly on their rivers, and ultimately he speaks for all of us. Let’s treat rivers as the source of life that they are. Our survival depends on it.

Monday, November 21, 2016