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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Valuing Rivers: Dammed if we Don’t

Pavan Sukhdev

27 Aug 2018

 By Pavan Sukhdev, President, WWF International  | 27 August 2018

“As sea levels rise, extreme weather events increase and the planet struggles to feed billions of people, it is critical to recognise that there is more than just water passing under those bridges and being blocked in those dams.”

To mark the start of World Water Week on 26 August 2018 and the launch of WWF’s new Valuing Rivers publication, Pavan Sukhdev, President of WWF International and Study Leader for the TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) shares his insights on the importance of rethinking and redefining how we value and manage our rivers in order to conserve them. Sherah Beckley, Editor Thomson Reuters Sustainability. 

Over centuries and civilizations, rivers have been tapped for a range of benefits, including water for cities, hydropower and irrigation, delivered through gigantic infrastructure projects that have spurred economic growth, opportunities and well-being across communities.

As they wind through fields, plains and cities, rivers have offered a lifeline to millions – in the form of food, energy or revenue. But now, our endless demands on our rivers threaten to undermine the very ‘hidden’ benefits that make them such extraordinary sources – and forces – of nature.

Today, the Mekong delta – home to 17 million Vietnamese, a quarter of the country’s GDP and its richest agricultural land – is losing its battle against the ocean as vast quantities of sediment flowing down this mighty river pile up behind an ever-increasing number of dams rather than helping to keep the delta above the rising waters.

And the Mekong is not the only sinking and shrinking delta: the majority of the world’s great deltas – Yangtze, Ganges, Indus, Nile – are also disappearing house by house, paddy field by paddy field.

Home to one out of every fourteen people on Earth, disappearing deltas are but one example of the collateral damage of decisions that have historically undervalued rivers or rather valued them for their water above other benefits that are not understood, recognized or fully valued.

In the past decades, we have drained, dammed and polluted rivers across the globe to secure the water we needed to build our civilizations without really considering the consequences.

We have taken decisions about river management without a thought to the sediment that is the only way to sustain the world’s deltas. Or the natural flood defences that can reduce the impact of extreme weather events on cities. Or toward freshwater fisheries that produce at least 12 million tonnes of fish per year and provide food and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people.

Right now, a huge hydropower dam is planned for Stiegler’s Gorge – a narrow chasm five miles long in the heart of Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, a World Heritage site.

Valuing the potential energy production above all else, the dam threatens the livelihoods of over 200,000 people downstream, including local communities that depend on fishing, as well as thousands of square kilometres of internationally protected areas.

There are currently thousands of dams on the drawing board or under construction around the world. Many of these have been planned without fully counting the cost of what could be lost: food security, jobs and livelihoods, the flow of nutrients to fertilize agriculturally productive floodplains and deltas, and even the extinction of species, such as the Tapanuli Orangutan in Sumatra.

As climate instability bites and cities and countries bounce from one water crisis to the next, something has to be done urgently to protect and restore all the benefits of healthy rivers.

The stakes could not be higher: with at least 2 billion people depending directly on rivers for their drinking water; 19 per cent of global GDP coming from watersheds with high water risk; and rivers directly supporting approximately a quarter of global food production through irrigation, not to mention a wealth of biodiversity that depends on healthy rivers.

But it is a challenging task to decide what to prioritize when it comes to managing rivers. Dams or deltas? Hydropower or higher yields from freshwater fisheries and floodplain agriculture? Concrete flood protection or fertile floodplains? Charting the best course for rivers embodies all the difficult trade-offs inherent in natural resource management.

Albeit formidable, I believe these challenges can be met if we transform how we value and manage our rivers. We can keep the water benefits flowing, while also ensuring that other benefits are not lost through ignorance or neglect, such as the delivery of nutrients to nourish freshwater and coastal fisheries and to fertilize floodplains.

The new WWF report Valuing Rivers: How the diverse benefits of healthy rivers underpin economies emphasizes how existing solutions, alongside emerging innovations, can offer much greater potential to reconcile economic growth with healthy rivers.

For example, the new technologies driving the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, such as artificial intelligence, remote sensing technology and blockchain, offer a number of promising pathways to improve how we measure and manage water.

Valuing rivers and effectively managing them for their full range of benefits requires far more than just rigorous science and valuation: it also needs an appreciation of social context. An energy company may see the value of rivers in very different terms from the farmer toiling along the Ganges or the fisherman sailing along the Mekong but that shouldn’t undermine its value, it should strengthen it.

Furthermore, as the moral philosopher Adam Smith pointed out almost two and a half centuries ago, we need to understand the difference between ‘value’ and ‘price’. He noted that some things, such as water, are very useful and valuable but have low or no price, whereas others – such as a diamond – have little ‘value in use’ but a very high price or ‘value in exchange’. We must better understand the nature of value, and the value of nature, to recognize and incentivize increases in public wealth and not just increases in private profits.

What we need – and the report offers – is a framework supporting reforms and innovations through communication, rigorous measurement, coalitions and strong governance structures for government, communities, financial institutions and the private sector to better understand rivers’ diverse values and then collaboratively work on the solutions needed protect and restore them.

It is time we understood the much broader and important values rivers add to our societies, economies, health and well-being – hidden as they may be. We have to rethink and redefine how we value and manage our rivers in a way that puts us on the path to sustainability and a development model that respects the natural systems we depend on and also allows our communities, cities, farms and businesses to thrive.

As sea levels rise, extreme weather events increase and the planet struggles to feed billions of people, it is critical to recognise that there is more than just water passing under those bridges and being blocked in those dams.

Other benefits also flow down healthy rivers – natural benefits that are part of the solution to a range of pressing problems. We have ignored and neglected these critical values for far too long. It is time for a “new deal” for the world’s rivers.

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