Healthy rivers are the lifelines of our planet. Rivers and their watersheds – and the rich variety of life they sustain – provide people with water, food, medicines, building materials, land-replenishing silts, and more. They mitigate floods and droughts, support forests, recharge groundwater supplies, sustain fisheries, and provide byways for travel. We cannot do without the goods and services that aquatic ecosystems provide, and we cannot replicate them. Protecting our rivers now is the health insurance policy we all need for a climate-challenged future.
A river is much more than flowing water. Its ever-shifting bed and banks, the groundwater below, its surrounding forests, marshes and floodplain are all parts of river life. A river carries not just water, but just as importantly nutrient-rich sediments and dissolved minerals that replenish the land.
The river’s estuary, where fresh water mixes with the ocean’s salt, is one of the most biologically productive parts of the river – and of the planet. Most of the world’s fish catch comes from species that depend for at least part of their life cycle on estuarine habitat.
A river's flow is its heartbeat. Because we have dammed so many rivers and lakes, our freshwater ecosystems are losing species and habitats faster than any other type of ecosystem. One way to reduce the impacts of damming is environmental flows, which are planned releases intended to support the basic ecosystem functions of dammed rivers.
Although the planet's rivers are in crisis, we can take comfort that rivers have a natural ability to self-heal. Over time, all of the efforts to engineer dynamic, powerful and unpredictable rivers will, inevitably, fail, and the river will have a chance to restore itself. As Richard Bangs, a former board member of International Rivers, wrote in his book River Gods, “Wild rivers are earth’s renegades, defying gravity, dancing to their own tunes, resisting the authority of humans, always chipping away, and eventually always winning.” We all win when rivers are allowed to flow freely.
For a visual introduction to dams, rivers and people watch our We All Live Downstream slideshow.
Infographic: What makes a healthy river? (The Nature Conservancy)
Anatomy of a River (American Rivers)
Rivers in Crisis: Mapping project documents threats to rivers