Fifty years ago, environmentalists and dam builders in the United States were locked in bitter battle. Dam building had swept the nation in the 1940s and ‘50s, blocking and impounding some of the most important rivers of the American West. On the Pacific Northwest’s Snake River (where controversies about dams continue to this day), dam construction had led to a massive fish kill and decimated salmon and steelhead runs.
Frank Church, a senator from Idaho, originally supported the dams. But having seen the environmental damage created, he spoke out for rivers. He saw “a groundswell of public concern for the fate of these majestic streams, many of them threatened by dams which would forever destroy their beauty and ecology.” He authored the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, signed into law on October 2, 1968. The Act now protects over 12,000 miles of free-flowing rivers in the United States.
The U.S. is now leading the movement to decommission dams. Dam removal on the Elwha River has been an enormous success, and the Mohawk Nation recently became the first U.S. tribe to remove a dam. The planned removal of four dams on the Klamath River would become the nation’s largest river restoration project.
But even though the U.S. leads the world in dam decommissioning, it continues to export a flawed development model of dam construction, and the dam-building boom has continued around the world. Not surprisingly, repeating history in the U.S., this dam building has led to a groundswell of public concern about protecting free-flowing rivers.
In recent months, we have won enormous victories, forcing governments to cancel or suspend many destructive projects. In Brazil, the Ministry of the Environment has cancelled the Sao Luiz do Tapajós Dam, the biggest proposed project in the Amazon, while Spanish dam builder Endesa has dropped six projects in Chile. The World Bank has cancelled support for the controversial Inga 3 Dam on the Congo River, while the Chinese government has halted plans to construct dams on one of China’s last free-flowing rivers, the Nu. In October, the Peruvian government announced that several dams proposed for the Marañón River, a major tributary of the Amazon, are off the table during this administration.
But after dam projects like these are suspended or cancelled, the rivers are generally not protected permanently. This leaves them at risk if a government decides to move forward with a dam in the future – giving credence to the famous quote that in the environment, victories are temporary, but defeats are permanent. Water protectors must always remain vigilant, monitoring new attempts to bring back destructive dams, but we now have a window of opportunity to gain protection for critical watersheds. It’s time to turn these victories into permanent protection for free-flowing rivers.
We’re starting in Chile, where Geute Conservación Sur, which defends ecosystems with high conservation value, is providing legal analysis to develop a new law for river protection in Chile. A new Chilean coalition of young activists, Ríos Libres (Free Rivers), is building public support for permanent legal river protection.
In Colombia, we’re working with another great movement, Ríos Vivos, to build support for protection. As in Chile, we’re working with lawyers to develop new approaches to long-term protection of free-flowing rivers like the upper Magdalena River. In Peru, we’re reviewing opportunities to ensure permanent protection of the Marañón River to secure the health of the Amazon’s headwaters.
We’re not going to stop there. Transboundary rivers – such as the Nu/Salween River, which runs through China and Myanmar, and the Gongri/Manas River in Bhutan and India – offer critical opportunities for river protection. Saving these rivers requires good transboundary cooperation. When done right, countries can avoid the strife we’ve seen in places like China and Thailand, where conflicts have arisen over development on the Lancang/Mekong River.
In New Zealand, the government has recognized the Whanganui River by giving it the same constitutional rights as a person. It was a striking recognition that free-flowing rivers provide enormous benefits, from food security to water access to biodiversity conservation.
In the United States, it took decades of dam building – and the associated devastation of rivers – before people and their lawmakers started protecting wild and free-flowing rivers. With climate change threatening, we can’t afford to wait decades. It’s time to protect our free-flowing rivers globally.