Looking to the Future

Michael Simon and R. Scott Spann

As Kate Horner transitions out of the organization, we want to offer a heartfelt thanks to Kate for her dedicated service and visionary leadership. We wish her all the best in her future endeavors, and know she’ll continue to be a valued member of our community. Kate will take a break, but fortunately she'll be staying in our circle in an advisory role thereafter. 

On this occasion, we want to take this opportunity to provide a glimpse of what’s next for International Rivers. In doing that, we must first take a moment to celebrate the skill, commitment and bravery of our regional staff: Brent, Rudo, Ange, Monti, Maureen, Pai, Samir, Ayesha, Steph and our newest additions: Kirk Barlow and Gary Lee. These staff are supported by our home office, as well as a raft of wonderful local consultants, interns and volunteers working out of our regional offices.

These individuals are the beating heart of our organization, the people who forge connections with (and often come from!) communities on the frontlines. Their tremendous work protecting rivers, biodiversity, and community security – in the face of misguided development – drives our organization in its mission.

Our regional staff have, between them, something close to a century of collective experience fighting for community rights and rivers. They are arming local movements with the information and support they need to wage smart, strategic campaigns against entrenched forces, amplifying community voices in the halls of power. And their courage is undeniable: Many of them are operating in places where the space for civil society is shrinking and growing more dangerous.

Perhaps most importantly, our staff does what rivers do: They connect us. They forge connections across boundaries and political borders, across language and culture, because the issues that threaten our rivers, and the communities that rely on them, are bigger than one bad government decision or the actions of one unscrupulous dam company. We are part of a global movement to care for and protect – fiercely and unapologetically – our communities, our rivers, our biodiversity and our climate.

The movement is re-energized, and it’s growing. We have seen an unprecedented grassroots mobilization to address the looming climate and extinction crises. Recently in Paris groups like Extinction Rebellion joined forces with us, recognizing the interdependence of river advocacy with hard campaigning to halt the trajectory of extinctions and habitat destruction. Attitudes are shifting rapidly: We have assumed increasing leadership in a global river protection movement that would have been unthinkable even five years ago.

The challenges are growing, as well. A new report has found that just one third of the world’s rivers remain free-flowing, rendering our work more critical than ever. The good news is that we have the networks, the vision and the muscle to move the needle on rivers, climate and human rights right now. In fact, we’re already doing it.

Here’s what we’re doing right now to deliver on our ambitious strategic plan.

Legal River Protections

We are driving groundbreaking research, community education and legal analysis all over the world to advance legal protections for free-flowing rivers. Our work is well advanced on the Teesta River in Northeast India, the Salween River in Myanmar, and the Cunene River in Angola and Mozambique, among many others. With local and grassroots partners, we are forming and strengthening coalitions to drive legal river protections forward, including the River Protection Coalition in Colombia and the National Coalition on River Protection in Peru.

Women’s Empowerment

We know that when women are empowered, everyone wins. That’s why we’re working with grassroots women’s groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo to nurture female leaders from communities fighting to protect their lands, rivers and livelihoods from harmful development. We are collaborating with local NGOs towards stronger strategies that recognize and advance women’s rights and power. 

Women are frequently the economic drivers in their communities, and the stewards of water resources, yet they hold little or no decision-making power. We aim to change that by addressing gender inequality and informing women of their rights.

Through trainings and capacity-building workshops, we are reinforcing knowledge on energy issues, exploring renewable energy alternatives that respond to women’s interests, confronting power that excludes women, and building solidarity across networks, movements and organizations. We’ve prepared a guide to help CSOs with gender sensitivity when engaging with affected communities. 

We’re also building on our convening of the first-ever global meeting on Women and Rivers, held this past March in Nepal. We’ve established a new network of women leaders concerned about the future of our rivers and our precious freshwater resources. The Congress Statement highlighted the mission: “We commit to continuing our fight to protect free-flowing rivers and the lands, forests and territories they sustain, to ensure women’s leadership in decision-making at all levels over freshwater resources, and to strengthen and build alliances and grow our movement, for the future of ourselves as women, our families and communities, our rivers and our planet.” We gladly take on a role in fostering these connections, and will work with our funding network and supporters to nurture and deepen these initiatives. 

World Heritage Sites and the Dam Industry’s Green-Washing

The dam industry is currently in a desperate quest to re-cast itself as clean and green for the coming energy transition. But we know that an industry that inundates and destroys biodiversity hotspots, has contributed to an 80% drop in freshwater species, and generates more methane than any other human activity has no place in our low-carbon energy future. Last week, we took that message to Paris for the World Hydropower Congress. (Read more about that here!)

We’re ready for the next stage of this work: Protecting World Heritage sites from damming. We’re currently preparing for the UNESCO meeting in July. It’s time for UNESCO to play a stronger role in protecting the rivers that underpin key World Heritage sites, both to protect our human heritage and the immense biodiversity threatened by proposed dams.

As board chair and interim Executive Director, we are honored to work with such an extraordinary staff on these vital issues. We are committed to this work for the long haul, as our long association with International Rivers shows. And we are deeply energized by the momentum – much of it nurtured by this remarkable staff over months and years of patient effort – that is now making such transformative change possible. We’ll be keeping our supporters informed of new developments in the organization as we continue to develop and grow. 

We appreciate you, our extended community, as well – from the grassroots organizations who drive, bolster and sustain this work to the funders and supporters who have enabled us to be strong through major fights, major wins and some disappointments. You have never lost sight of the vision: That we can and must create a world where people not only have control over their lives, lands and waters, but where they can participate in the protection and renewal of the precious rivers that sustain our lives and our climate.

On the Teesta River in Northeast India and Bangladesh, communities facing erosion because of upstream dams rejected plans to pave their riverbanks with concrete, thanks to our education campaign. Instead, they planted native grasses – and watched their lives and river thrive because of it. Let’s follow their example: Let’s choose living nature over concrete. Water is life.

Thank you, and please stay with us. There’s lots of good to come.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019