Goal 6: Gain Permanent Legal Protections for the World’s Iconic Rivers


For the next week, we'll be exploring the six goals that will guide our work for the next five years, as part of the launch of our new Strategic Plan. Read the whole series! 


Any river defender knows the feeling. After years -- sometimes decades -- of struggle save a river from a destructive project, you win! The company or the financier pulls out of the project; communities breathe easier, and life returns to normal. Then, a few years later, that bad project pops up under a new name, on a slightly different part of the river. 

It’s a terrible sort of deja vu. But the reality is that even when dams are canceled, rivers are still vulnerable to future projects. There’s even a name for bad projects that keep popping up again: zombie dams. 

Typically, legal protections for rivers and community rights to river waters have been unclear, weak or insufficient. Our rivers and our river communities deserve better. That’s why we’re pursuing new means of protecting key rivers permanently. 

In the next five years, we’ll prioritize key rivers that present the strongest need and greatest opportunity for permanent legal protection. We’ll evaluate the feasibility for legal protections in river basins in regions where we work, and prioritize rivers considering the following criteria:

  • existing and threatened biodiversity;
  • importance of a river to food security and livelihoods of local populations;
  • commitment of indigenous peoples to river conservation;
  • existing fragmentation or threats from additional dams or infrastructure;
  • feasibility of additional protections;
  • potential to link future river conservation to existing protected systems;
  • political opportunity with aligned interests of stakeholder groups;

This won’t happen overnight. We’ll need to bring a group of diverse stakeholders on board, and educate these stakeholders about current working models for river protection, like the Wild and Scenic River Act in the United States. And we’ll need to develop a solid scientific evidence base behind us to justify legal protections for these priority rivers.

We’ve already taken the first steps. We’re commissioning studies to identify at-risk rivers in basins where we work, and we’re developing strong relationships with regional legal experts. They’re helping us craft nationally-specific legal models that will help communities around the world protect their rivers.

This is exciting work. It’s an idea whose time has come -- we’ve already seen early examples of it working in New Zealand and elsewhere. But we need to lay the legal and scientific groundwork that will help permanent river protection catch on. Help us do it!


By 2022, rivers will have legal protections that recognize the rights of river communities and ensure critical ecosystem functions are preserved.

Thursday, October 12, 2017