Rivers in Crisis

Pak Mun Dam
Pak Mun Dam

Understanding rivers is essential to understanding the 21st Century's planetary crises and the opportunities for unleashing the regenerative capacities of the Living Earth. Water makes life on Earth possible, and rivers connect the webs of life, drawing together freshwater, marine and terrestrial environments. Rivers drive critical natural processes that have shaped the evolution of life on Earth, as well as human patterns of civilization. Rivers that become disconnected – from fertile floodplains, from the ocean, from biotic communities – are compromised in their ability to maintain and generate life.

The world’s rivers are in crisis, and the drivers of river degradation are numerous. While pollution in its many forms impairs the quality of our rivers’ waters, dams impact both water quality and the very functionality of rivers, of planetary life cycle processes. Roughly two-thirds of the world's rivers have suffered harm from the 50,000 large dams that have been built over the past century.  Many of the world's great rivers – such as the Indus, the Colorado, and the Yellow rivers – no longer reach the ocean, turning once-productive deltas into biological deserts. More than tropical rainforests, marine environments, or coastal wetlands, freshwater ecosystems are experiencing the greatest loss of biodiversity, in large measure due to dams. Over the past 40 years, freshwater ecosystems have lost 50% of their populations and over a third of remaining freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction[1].

Presently, the great river basins of the world are experiencing a new wave of damming: the Amazon, the Congo and the Mekong are each superlative in their contributions to planetary cycles, biodiversity and human livelihood dependence. Each of these basins is threatened with audacious and narrow-sighted schemes that will irreversibly disconnect rivers and cost the planet billions in lost ecosystem services. 

At International Rivers, we prioritize healthy rivers as the most critical natural component for sustaining life on Earth. As part of a global network of dam-affected and dam-threatened communities, we are guided by the interests of the more than a half-billion people impacted by the damming of rivers, and work to stop destructive dams that worsen our planetary crises. We seize on opportunities to re-channel human and economic development into water, energy, and food production systems that protect and regenerate river health, promote social and ecological resiliency, and bring equity to the economic development process. 

[1] Figures according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the IUCN Red List, respectively

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