Putting Rivers on the Agenda in Rio

Jason Rainey
Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Commentary: June 2012 World Rivers Review

In the preparations for the twentieth anniversary conference of the Earth Summit, the word “Rio” flows from everyone’s lips. But are rivers properly integrated into the consciousness – and agenda – of organizers of the official proceedings?

This UN Conference on Sustainable Development – returning to Rio de Janeiro, which hosted the historic Earth Summit in 1992 – brings together governments, corporations, and a subset of NGOs in the official proceedings, while thousands of civil society groups – including International Rivers – will network within the unofficial People’s Summit. In 1992, the conference produced landmark treaties on climate change and biodiversity. Twenty years later, what have we really achieved toward reducing carbon emissions, slowing the rate of species extinctions, and advancing economic development that fosters social and ecological resilience? It’s rather clear that global indicators of shared economic prosperity and ecological health suggest that we’re heading in the wrong direction.

Just on the issue of rivers, for example, the past 20 years have pushed freshwater biodiversity into a crisis situation – extinction rates for freshwater species are four to six times greater than their terrestrial and marine cousins. And the current boom in hydropower dams is being marketed as a response to climate change, yet the science on carbon emissions from reservoirs suggests the world’s 50,000 large dams contribute roughly 4% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

This year, the UN conference is flying under the banner of the “Green Economy.” There’s a basic axiom that says that you can only effectively manage that which you measure. So what will constitute the performance metrics for achieving this “green” economy? If the “Zero Draft” document, which outlines the ambitions of the conference, is any indication, it’s not likely we’ll see a shift beyond the same old measurements of GDP and sustained economic growth. There’s a decades-long tradition of advocacy for a shift in how societies measure economic health ¬– think “Limits to Growth,” “Gross National Happiness” or “What’s the economy for, anyway?” The global climate movement that’s focused on atmospheric carbon has put forth another alternative measurement: 350 parts per million.

Let me bring rivers back into the picture. Rio+20 offers an opportunity to consider another essential measurement of planetary health and sustainable economic development. River health, and the roles that functioning rivers play in localized and planetary ecosystem services, are poorly understood by decision-makers. Yet basic science, history and common sense all tell us that we need a living planet to support life, and healthy rivers are the source.

Finding an appropriate measurement for river health is a complicated affair. Perhaps this complexity is one reason for rivers being all but neglected in broader debates about climate resilience, appropriate energy development, and preservation of local place-based livelihoods. Yet, when looking at energy production, food security, clean water and the web of biodiversity that human society is built upon, there’s no more essential indicator than river health.

In this special issue of World Rivers Review, we provide a survey of the key river issues of today, and how they correlate to the themes of sustainable economic development, climate resilience, and preserving the planet’s natural capital.

Roughly two-thirds of the world’s rivers are already dammed and diverted to a degree that has ruptured their ecological functionality. Meanwhile, an unprecedented global dam boom is getting underway. With each new proposed large dam project – there are roughly 120 proposed in the Amazon Basin alone – the Earth’s rivers are on a path to “dying from a thousand cuts.”

There is presently no coordinated international effort by governments to assess and characterize which river systems on Earth, if any, should be sustained for the sake of the biosphere and future generations. Instead, we are “negotiating” the fate of the world’s rivers one dam project at a time, framed by the narrowest of impact assessments and driven by energy demand projections (i.e., wish-lists) proffered by individual nations. Rio+20 is an opportunity to put rivers on the international agenda. I’ll be in Rio looking to build partnerships and creative solutions toward durable legal protections for the world’s last great rivers, while also networking with dam-threatened communities to build our collective capacities to resist proposed destructive dam schemes and advance climate-resilient energy solutions.

I look forward to reporting back from the People’s Summit, in the streets, and from outside the official UN proceedings to share stories from our global movement and to push an agenda for rivers at Rio+20. You can follow along at my blog at internationalrivers.org.