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What are rivers worth?

Undervaluing ‘hidden’ benefits of rivers undermines economies and sustainable development, warns new report
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Hindu pilgrims take holy bath in the River Ganges, Varanasi

As floods and droughts ravage communities and countries worldwide, a WWF report published yesterday (26 August) highlights the capacity of healthy rivers to help mitigate these natural disasters. However, it warns that all these ‘hidden’ benefits of rivers could be lost if they continue to be undervalued and overlooked.

The Valuing Rivers report, released on the opening day of World Water Week in Stockholm, outlines how the traditionally narrow view of rivers as primarily sources of water and power puts other critical benefits at risk. These include everything from freshwater fisheries to natural flood protection for cities and sediment flows that keep the world’s deltas above the rising seas.

While these benefits directly affect hundreds of millions of people, they are often overlooked and remain a low priority for decision makers – until they disappear and crises occur.

Rivers and GDP

The report shows how this short-sighted approach that has proven costly across the globe and could result in even greater economic losses in the future. Already, 19% of global GDP comes from watersheds with high or very high water risk, while most of the world’s great deltas – including the Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Nile and Yangtze – are sinking and shrinking.

With rivers both in Europe and globally under growing pressure from dam development, climate change and soaring demand for water to irrigate farms and fuel hydropower plants, the report provides a new framework for improving how societies measure, value and promote rivers’ diverse benefits and offers solutions to support better decisions and management.

In Europe, only 40% of European surface waters are currently considered healthy (EEA, 2018), despite the EU Water Framework Directive’s legal obligation to protect and restore Europe’s freshwater bodies.

‘Low ambition’ for protecting rivers

Martina Mlinaric, senior policy officer for water at the WWF European Policy Office, says the report ‘clearly shows’ that healthy rivers and lakes bring often ignored benefits to people and economies, and that strong legislation is key in protecting freshwater bodies.

‘The failure by governments to recognise the socio-economic values generated by the improvement in water status has contributed to the low ambition in reaching the objectives of the EU water law’, Martina said.

Along with their central role in many cultures and religions, the report shows that healthy rivers, particularly free-flowing rivers, provide a range of extremely valuable – and increasingly vulnerable – benefits to people across the planet.

‘Collapsing fisheries and disappearing deltas are just two examples of the collateral damage caused by our failure to value rivers for all their diverse benefits – not just the water flowing down them’, said Stuart Orr, WWF freshwater practice lead. ‘We need to urgently transform the way we value and manage our rivers, or we risk undermining economies and global efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals.’

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