Watching the River Flow

Lori Pottinger

Rivers are often called the planet’s circulatory system. Like our body’s circulation system, the planetary one doesn’t work very well when it’s clogged up.

Dams hold back not just water but silts and nutrients that replenish farmlands and build protective wetlands and beaches. They change the timing of floods, impacting species that have evolved in synch with natural flood cycles. Dams change the very riverness of our waterways, in ways we can’t always see but that the earth can certainly feel.

This issue of World Rivers Review focuses on how to maintain healthy flows in our rivers, for their health and our own. “A river's flow is its heartbeat,” say the authors of a new report on how to maintain “environmental flows” (excerpted in this issue). And nothing messes with that heartbeat as quickly or dramatically as a big plug of concrete across a river’s mainstream.

Our species is the heart disease of the world’s rivers. We’ve clogged most of our major rivers with dams, bled them dry with water diversions, and given up all too many once-great rivers for dead once we’ve used them up. Healthy rivers are on the verge of being an endangered species.

It’s not too late to do something about it. The articles in this issue look at three ways to solve the problem of maintaining healthy river flows.

First, we need to protect remaining free-flowing rivers while we still have some to protect. An Indian writer summarizes policy tools that have been successful in protecting free-flowing rivers around the globe.

Second, we must insist on minimum flows to support the basic ecosystem functions of dammed rivers. The authors of a new report on the topic share their recommendations on how to ensure environmental flow policies are actually implemented.

And finally, we must remove the worst dams to restore flows that support habitats, fisheries and other natural services lost to poorly planned dams. Our cover story reviews the latest highlights from the growing movement to remove dams and restore rivers in the United States. 

If you need a graphic jolt to remind you of why we need a concerted effort to protect and restore river flows, turn to page 11. Here you’ll find the photos of Radek Skrivanek, who has documented the sad story of the Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union – perhaps the most iconic example of how a river’s death affects human health and well being. Radek’s haunting black and white photos show a dried-up community living in a distopian land: their fish dead, their boats beached, their lives as dry as the toxic, dessicated lakebed they still call home. This is not a landscape that can be revived.

Protecting our rivers now is the health insurance policy we all need for a climate-challenged future. That’s what the activists in Patagonia understand, as they protest a plan to dam their rivers and ship the hydropower across the country to Santiago. The recent decision to build five dams in Patagonia’s mountain paradise brought out thousands over many days of protest, in a national effort to protect the region’s free-flowing rivers.  Similarly, the people in China’s Nu River basin don’t need convincing that a string of 13 dams will bring bad luck to their region. While Chinese citizens aren’t as free to protest as Chileans, local activists and Nu River residents have managed to fend off damming in this biodiversity hotspot for years. Their latest challenge is a new plan for massive damming recently unleashed by China’s energy planners.

We can take small comfort that rivers have a natural ability to self-heal. Over time, all of the efforts to engineer dynamic, powerful and unpredictable rivers will, inevitably, fail, and the river will have a chance to restore itself.  As Richard Bangs, a former board member of International Rivers, wrote in his book River Gods,  “Wild rivers are earth’s renegades, defying gravity, dancing to their own tunes, resisting the authority of humans, always chipping away, and eventually always winning.” We all win when rivers are allowed to flow freely.