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Sustaining the World's Rivers

Concerned communities around the world are increasingly working together to restore and sustain rivers and their catchments, so that the human demands for water, hydro-electricity, navigation, recreation and tourism can be wisely balanced against the rivers’ natural heritage and ecological values.

Across the world, people have seen their rivers deteriorate, becoming less reliable as a water supply, clogged with sediment, too contaminated to drink untreated, diminished in biodiversity or overrun by pests and weeds.

Restoration of the world’s degraded rivers has become more than just a cause célèbre for concerned citizens and organisations. River and catchment protection is now seen in most countries as a fundamental component of integrated water and environmental management. (Whether or not all countries – developed and developing – have the same opportunity to meet these enshrined protection goals is another matter - see John Briscoe interview page 6 for more on this topic).

For decades, personally committed environmentalists, scientists and NGOs have warned of the dangers, and worked hard to find solutions to river degradation. However, it is when individuals and groups work together that real and sustainable river restoration outcomes are achieved.

Now, hundreds if not thousands of collaborative initiatives around the world are in the process of rescuing rivers and their associated lakes, wetlands and catchments.

Barron River restorationBarron River restorationThe size and scope of the participating organisations is almost as diverse as the ecosystems they seek to protect. They range from large, powerful and (relatively) wealthy trans-boundary river basin organisations, such as the Mekong River Commission, Danube River Commission, and Murray-Darling Basin Authority; and government mega-agencies, such as the US Corps of Engineers; to small but dedicated groupings of NGOs, local government authorities and citizens (eg. Ontario’s Conservation Protection Authorities and Australia’s Landcare and Waterwatch Groups).
Some such organisations started out many decades ago with purely ‘exploitative’ objectives: building and operating engineering works to tame (sic) rivers, prevent floods and to supply water to farms or cities. But, over recent decades they have turned their hand to river restoration. The US Corps of Engineers and the River Murray Commission are two such examples.

The policy and management underpinning river restoration is complex. Leading South African river scientist and commentator, Professor Kevin Rogers, wrote in 2006, “Rivers are, by their very nature, common property resources. As such, they present two fundamental challenges in management. How to regulate access to the resource, and how to institute rules among users to solve the potential divergence between individual and collective rationality about use of the resource.”

Rogers went on to say that the key to producing broad societal responses to environmental problems ‘lies in the processes used to develop a common understanding and collective decision-making in the redistribution of costs and benefits of resource use’ (my emphasis).
We need look no further than our own backyard in Australia to see such socio-political dynamics in river restoration. Work on restoring the Murray-Darling River system has been on-going for more than two decades. Consumptive (surface) water use was capped in 1995, and strategies for managing water quality, fish, endangered species, riparian vegetation, and in-stream habitat (to name but a few) have been enacted. Whilst these programs were politically and socially difficult to implement in their time, that pales in comparison to the controversy and grief that has been caused by the recent attempts to reset the balance in water use between humans and the environment (through environmental water recovery initiatives such as Water for the Future, and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan).

As Kevin Rogers makes clear, what is needed is “common understanding and collective decision-making”, something, perhaps, we have seen insufficient of around recent endeavours in Australia and overseas.

Stand-out Successes

In spite of these challenges and road-blocks, there have been some outstanding success stories resulting from integrated river restoration work.
Danube Bend at Visegrád. Photo by Philipp WeigellDanube Bend at Visegrád. Photo by Philipp WeigellFor example, recovery of the Mersey River in north-west England (made famous by Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Beatles and other ‘Mersey Beat’ bands of the sixties) began because of shame at its ‘dirty and lifeless’ condition. A small group became the hub for the work early in the 1980s, and the efforts it masterminded were so effective that the restored river was able to win the first Thiess International Riverprize, awarded by Australia’s International River Foundation, in 1999.
Prizes like the International Riverprize give dedicated and hard-working restoration teams recognition, credibility and kudos in their own regions and countries, as well as financial rewards.

International River Foundation CEO Matt Reddy says: “Both the Australian and the International Riverprizes do two important things; firstly, they provide a high level of peer recognition for many, often thankless years of work, and an opportunity to celebrate achievements, and secondly, winning marks a milestone for the recipients in their own river journey; often this means a rethink of the group objectives or a launch pad to new horizons.

“Winners’ feedback shows that whilst the financial aspect of the Riverprize is well received, it’s the opportunities that arise from winning that is valued the most,” Reddy says. He also notes some of the lessons learned through experience by the winners of the IRF Riverprizes hint at hurdles that many collaborative restoration projects have to leap. These include:

•    The need for long-term commitment: It is unrealistic to expect major restoration outcomes in just a few years, when the damage has accumulated over decades or perhaps centuries;
•    Strong and influential leadership is essential, as is sufficient (often large) funding;
•    Acknowledging that individuals and local projects can be as helpful as large-scale institutional programs in achieving the objectives;
•    Adaptability, flexibility and, most of all, open and honest collaboration, are vital. Unusual partnerships across various sectors of society may be necessary, and may prove crucial to success;
•    Monitoring, recording and reporting data, assessment, and feedback along the way help refine the science and thinking behind the project. They also let the program team and stakeholders see what has been achieved, and learn from successes and mistakes;
•    Shared information is a keystone of the work: knowledge is power in these endeavours, and those who seek to hold it to themselves (often governments unfortunately) unbalance and unhinge the collaborative process. With today’s internet resources, there is rarely a good excuse for not sharing data and information;
•    Celebration of involvement and progress is very important and can stimulate more partnerships, efforts and long-term participation.

Groups that have been successful in restoring rivers and catchments are often willing to share their knowledge with newly starting groups. Winning an award like the Riverprize is only the beginning of the journey for some; a win opens the curtain to an international stage on which to share knowledge and continue the prize winners’ work. Incorporating such ‘Twinning’ activities into the Riverprize winner’s requirements allows the knowledge exchange programs to quickly spread internationally.

One of IRF’s most successful twinning projects has been the Russian ‘Sakhalin Salmon’ partnership, set up by the 2004 International Riverprize winners from Siuslaw Basin USA. The American prize winners developed a Twinning project in Russia to establish and promote the conservation and sustainable use of Pacific Salmon and to protect the salmon ecosystems and communities which support, and are in turn supported by, the Pacific Salmon. Six years later in 2010, Sakhalin Environment Watch was an International Riverprize finalist and its chairman Dmitry Lisitsyn recently won the prestigious 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize. This achievement reflects the international reach, effectiveness and enduring legacy of such global outreach programs.

For a newly beginning project, the restoration journey to a healthy river and catchment, often from a highly degraded starting point, can be daunting. Stakeholder engagement and collaborative participation are an enormous challenge, possibly greater than the challenge of finding relevant science and engineering solutions to apply. However, involvement, trust and respect are three fundamental concepts that matter if the world’s rivers are to be restored and sustained, for all their economic, ecological, cultural and heritage values.

Footnote: Gary is also Chairman of the International River Foundation charity.

Rogers K.H. 2006: The real river management challenge: integrating scientists, stakeholders and service agencies. River Research & Applications 22:269-280.