The Global River Protection Movement

Freshwater is critical for life on earth, yet faced with tremendous threats. Permanent legal protections that ensure rivers' critical ecosystem functions are preserved, and that recognize the rights of river communities, are desparately needed across the globe. The scale of change that we seek cannot be accomplished without the work of hundreds of partners and allies working to protect rivers locally to globally. Our River Protection Action Hub seeks to consolidate key resources for all groups and individuals working to protect their rivers. 

River Protection Action Hub

Why We Need River Protection Now

Rivers are the arteries of our planet, but the threats to our rivers and freshwater are multiplying. A dangerous combination of climate change, dams, diversions and pollution is transforming our rivers from vibrant waterways to stagnant dead zones. Freshwater ecosystems have lost an astonishing 81% of their aquatic populations since 1970, the highest rate for any ecosystem.

Altering our rivers has dire consequences for humans, too. Where rivers and wetlands are being destroyed, displacement, water scarcity and food insecurity loom, tearing tight-knit – and often previously self-sufficient – families and communities apart. Those who dare to stand up for their rivers often face persecution, or worse. 

The True Value of Rivers

Rivers supply vital water and nutrients to agricultural land, floodplains and deltas, nourishing immense biodiversity and bringing water and food hundreds of millions of people around the world. They provide essential drinking water. They are sources of faith, spiritual traditions, ritual, songs and stories. They carry the history of human civilization in their rippling waters.

Yet in 2016, the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy found that “a relatively small fraction of the world’s nations have formal, legal mechanisms specific to river protection.” This problem has been compounded by governments and global decision-makers who have often overlooked rivers in their conservation work. Other protected areas, such as forests, rarely if ever include “durable protection” for the rivers located within them. In many places, such as the Balkans and Himalayas, dam developers are actually proposing new dams within protected areas.

Permanent legal protections are necessary to ensure the long-term health and viability of rivers and the communities that depend on them. Decision-makers must also recognize that dams, other water infrastructure, pollution and extractions affect the system well beyond the immediate environs. Protections must be considered on a basin and catchment scale to ensure that watershed mountain and forest environments are included, as well as the floodplains, wetlands, deltas, estuaries and near-shore coastal habitats. 

River Protection in History

Indigenous cultures have cherished rivers as living beings since time immemorial. Long before the United States passed the Water Pollution Control Act (1948) or the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968), indigenous cultures revered and protected their rivers. 

  • In South Asia, cultures built temples near the headwaters of the region’s great rivers, which then flowed through protected forest groves. Biodiverse sites like confluences, deep pools and mangroves were revered, protected and celebrated.
  • In Colombia, the headwaters of the Magdalena are marked with magnificent ancient sculptures, now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • In Cambodia, ancient carvings on the Angkor Wat temples celebrate the civilization’s fishing and water culture.
  • And indigenous rock art from Australia, tens of thousands years old, records the presence of fish and aquatic animals as both totems and essential food sources.

These storied traditions of river protection inform much of the "rights of rivers" work currently in motion.