Rivers continue to be under attack, globally
World Rivers Day – 26 September
– By Indira Khurana
From reminiscing to rejuvenation: The urgent need to save rivers
Ask people on the ‘wrong’ side of fifty – even forty – about rivers, and the reminisces begin: How their lives were shaped by the rivers and the ‘river appropriate behavior’ they adopted. Where has all this sense disappeared?
Target 6.6 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (Goal no 6) is to ‘Protect and restore water-related ecosystems including mountains, forests, rivers, wetlands, aquifers and lakes by 2020.’ Yet, continued and accelerating declines in river connectivity, aquatic biodiversity and associated ecosystem services remain a global challenge. SDG 6 is “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”
As rivers globally continue to be under attack, leading to their contamination and even disappearance, it’s time to turn nostalgia into action that arrests and reverses river decline and move towards revival and regeneration.
Rivers for life
Rivers are essential for environmental health, economic wealth and human well-being. Water-related ecosystem services include ecological services such as climate moderation, nutrient cycling, waste treatment, flood control, groundwater recharge, habitats for species, genetic resources and biodiversity. For millennia, rivers have provided food, contributed water for domestic use and agriculture, sustained transportation corridors and, more recently, enabled power generation and industrial production. Unfortunately, a large portion of this has come at huge cost.
According to the first global initiative that assessed water security for people and river biodiversity, rivers of the world are threatened due to mismanagement and pollution, which endangers eight of every 10 people as well as 10,000-20,000 species. Some of the factors behind this are river pollution, intensive agriculture, catchment disturbance and dam building. Thirty of the 47 largest river systems which together discharge half of the global runoff to the oceans are at risk.
Rivers across the globe are polluted. In 2021, the latest water quality report from UK found that a mere 14 per cent of the country’s rivers could quality as ‘good’ as per their Environment Agency’s standards. This contamination is mainly due to sewage, industrial wastewater discharge and agricultural discharge.
In 2018, the Indian Central Water Commission brought out a report sharing the findings of water quality vis-à-vis toxic metals in 16 river basins. Toxic metals found in these river basins included cadmium in 25 rivers (health implications – cardiovascular disease, kidney failure, lung damage and cancer; high blood pressure); Chromium in 21 rivers (health implications – rash, stomach ulcers, respiratory problems, lower immune system, kidney and liver damage, lung cancer and genetic alternations) Iron in 137 rivers (health implications – hemochromatosis); Lead in 69 rivers (health implications – lung damage, hematopoiesis, miscarriage, respiratory illness); and, Nickel (health implications – skin rashes, respiratory illness, cancer) in 25 rivers. A 2021 study of the river Ganga between Kanpur and Haridwar found huge amounts of micro-plastic in the water.
The pollution of rivers does not remain confirmed to the rivers themselves: The pollution spills over into groundwater, lakes floodplains and into seas and oceans.
The power of free-flowing rivers
Free-flowing rivers support diverse, complex and dynamic ecosystems globally, providing important societal and economic services. Transboundary free flowing rivers also offer opportunity to cooperate.
According to scientists, the capacity of rivers to flow freely is governed by the connectivity of pathways that enable the movement and exchange of water and of the organisms, sediments, organic matter, nutrients and energy that it conveys throughout the riverine environment. River connectivity extends in four dimensions: Longitudinally (up- and downstream in the river channel), laterally (between the main channel, the floodplain and riparian areas), vertically (between the groundwater, the river and the atmosphere) and temporally (seasonality of flows).
River connectivity is also dynamic, largely driven by the natural flow regime, enabling and regulating hydrological, geomorphic and ecological processes in river networks and providing the aquatic medium for matter and species to move along the river and into adjacent habitats.
Humans have altered this natural river connectivity in multiple ways, either directly, by placing structures into the longitudinal or lateral flow paths, such as dams and levees, or indirectly, by altering the hydrological, thermal and sediment regimes of the river. The ecosystem services provided by floodplains, one of the most productive and diverse riverine ecosystems globally are disrupted when these are disconnected from the upstream catchment or river channel, leading to disruption of natural flood storage, nutrient retention and flood-recession agriculture. Constructions on rivers has resulted in the decline of aquatic and terrestrial species. Sediment capture by dams has disrupted the river and deltas have shrunk. While fish species and catch have declined this has implications on livelihood of fisherfolk and on nutrition
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It is almost impossible to put a value or quantity the services provided by a river. How can a number be put to the peace and tranquility that a river provides? To the groundwater that it recharges? Or the fertile silt it provides? Or the sense of security?
Transboundary rivers provide an opportunity for cooperation
Water, as it flows on the surface of the earth or below, does not recognize the political and physical boundaries of the world. Transboundary waters are the groundwater aquifers, lakes and river basins shared by two or more countries. There are an estimated 263 major international river basins in the world. Though the majority of trans-boundary freshwater river basins cross just two nations, there are 21 river basins that are shared by five or more countries. About 70 per cent of trans-boundary basins are located between developing and emerging economies, with variable intra- and inter-year hydrology, compounded by constraints of water-related institutional capacity and infrastructure resources at national level.
Transboundary waters support the lives and livelihoods of a vast number of people: Depletion of these waters have tremendous potential to cause social unrest and spark conflict within and between countries. Water has the power to shape governance.
Cooperation between nations through water-sharing agreements has been the most effective instrument in dealing with trans-boundary water sharing and disputes. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 3,600 treaties related to international water resources have been drawn up since 805 AD. While most deal with navigation and boundary demarcation, in the last century the focus has shifted towards the use, development, protection and conservation of water resources.
With water becoming scarce, the potential for conflict – or cooperation is immense. In an era of increasing water stress, how these critical resources are managed is vital for promoting peaceful cooperation and sustainable development.
Urgency for action
Celebrated on the fourth Sunday of September, World Rivers Day, offers an opportunity to do commit to change the fate of rivers and in doing that, our own.
Founded by Mark Angelo, World Rivers Day is a celebration of the world’s waterways. Through various events held throughout the world, the purpose is to highlight the many values our rivers, increase public awareness and encourage appropriate action for saving rivers. Rivers is almost all countries faces a range of threats: Saving rivers requires our focused attention and active involvement.
Rivers are culture, heritage, spirituality, solace, centres of peace and creativity, rituals livelihood, song and cinema, youth, old age, romance and much more. Rivers are a legacy. Rivers define us. Our actions must not further destroy rivers. It’s time to convert reminisces to river rejuvenation. Because, like American author Barry Lopez, a nature writer known for his humanitarian and environment concerns said, ‘To put your hands in a river is to feel the chords that bind the earth.’
*Indira Khurana, PhD has been working on water and natural resources for more than two decades.