Our Rivers Feed Millions

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  • From June 2012 World Rivers Review
River systems support the Earth’s highest biological diversity – and the most intense human activity. As a consequence of decades of humans exploiting rivers with large dams, water diversions and pollution, our rivers and the life they support are in a state of crisis. Large dams flood productive lands, fragment habitat, isolate species, and cut off migration routes. They reduce water and sediment flows to downstream lands, and change the nature of a river’s estuary, where many of the world’s fish species spawn. These changes are creating crises in food security for those who rely on wild foods and river-supported food crops and animals. Healthy rivers are the planet’s lifelines. We cannot do without the goods and services they provide, and we cannot replicate them. Protecting our rivers now is the health insurance policy we all need for a climate-challenged future. Here we look at just three great rivers that are facing uncertain futures.

The Mekong: River of Fish

By Ame Trandem

The Mekong region’s fortune swims in the waters of the Mekong River. A source of food like no other, the Mekong River is home to the world’s largest inland fisheries, supplying approximately 20% of the world’s freshwater fish and up to 80% of the region’s source of animal protein. The river’s sediment flows from the upper reaches of the Mekong River to the delta, and is essential for Asia’s rice production.

With fish and rice central to the food security and the livelihoods of millions of people, and the Mekong central to the health of these two food systems, it is no surprise that plans to build the Xayaburi Dam in Laos – the first in a cascade of 11 hydro dams proposed for the river’s mainstream – has been viewed as one of the most significant threats to sustainable development in the region. As a result, these projects also face significant public opposition within the region and internationally. Most recently, dozens of representatives from Thai communities that will be affected by the Xayaburi Dam protested at the region’s Mekong2Rio Conference in Phuket, Thailand. The protestors are asking regional leaders to strengthen transboundary river management on the Mekong River.

It has been estimated that the Xayaburi Dam and other mainstream dams could reduce the Mekong basin’s fisheries by up to 42%, which is worth at least US$476 million per year. Damming would also decrease sediment load by up to 75%. As a result, the food security of some two million people in the region would be at risk, while millions more would suffer impacts to their livelihoods. Experts have warned that effective mitigation of many of these impacts will not be possible. A study by Portland State University estimates that the dams’ environmental, social and economic costs could potentially be 10 times greater than the expected benefits.

With such costly tradeoffs, directly affected people in the region should be an integral part of decision-making on these destructive projects.

While debate on whether or not to build the Xayaburi Dam remains underway amongst the MRC member countries, the communities who will be impacted by the project have had little to no opportunity to participate in this decision. As a result of concerns raised by civil society groups during a series of consultations held in early 2011, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have requested from Laos further consultation and study on the dam’s transboundary impacts.

Despite the growing number of scientific reports demonstrating the harm the mainstream dams will cause to the region, a recent briefing paper put out for the Rio+20 conference by two UN agencies, UNCSD and UNCTAD, touts hydropower export as a “green economy” activity for Laos.

“The Xayaburi and other dams being considered on the Mekong River in Laos cannot be called ‘green,’” explains Jerrasak Inthayos, a villager from Chiang Khong, Thailand. “It is unacceptable for UN agencies to promote such a destructive and irresponsible scheme. The dams’ transboundary impacts will not only destroy our fish, food security and livelihoods, but also our culture.”

It is vital that regional leaders involved in Rio+20 renew their commitment to sustainably manage the Mekong River by ending plans to develop destructive projects like the Mekong mainstream dams.

The Amazon: Teeming with Life

By Kate Ross

The Tapajós Basin, known as the jewel of the Amazon, is a beautiful natural mosaic of healthy ecosystems, protected areas and indigenous lands. It is home to an incredible array of plant and animal biodiversity, which sustain the lives of at least 820,000 people. However this unique and powerful ecosystem is threatened by plans to build a series of massive dams on the Tapajos, and its major tributaries the Teles Pires, Jamanxim and Juruena rivers. These dams would be part of a larger complex of water infrastructure projects in the region, with much of the electricity from the dams going toward the expansion of energy-intensive aluminum and iron ore smelters. Five large dams are planned for the Teles Pires River.

The first of these, Teles Pires Dam, has been under construction since August 2011. The project would dramatically and irreversibly damage the quality of life and the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples in the region. The dam would flood the rapids of Sete Quedas, which is the spawning grounds of fish that are integral to the lives of local communities, including the pintado, pacú, pirarara and matrinxã. In addition to the importance which these rapids represent to the physical survival of indigenous communities, they also have a powerful cultural significance. According to a recent declaration by indigenous peoples, “Sete Quedas is a sacred place, where the Mãe dos Peixes (Mother of Fish) and other spirits of our ancestors live – a place known as Uel, meaning that it should not be messed with.” As a cultural heritage site it is protected by the Brazilian constitution and international agreements.

The Zambezi: Southern African Lifeline

By Rudo Sanyanga

Life in Southern Africa was for millennia measured by the ebb and flow of the great Zambezi River. Every year the river’s waters spilled over into its vast floodplains, irrigating crops, rejuvenating grasslands for livestock and wildlife, depositing nutrient-rich sediments in coastal mangroves, and triggering the lifecycles of countless species. Dry-season flows sustained the productive coastal prawn fisheries. For centuries, people of the Zambezi were the most food-secure in Southern Africa.

Today, the Zambezi’s ancient flood cycle has been harnessed by the colossal Kariba, Itezhi Tezhi and Cahora Bassa dams. Some 30 million people in eight nations rely on the river for basic needs, but impacts from dams and competing uses of the river are beginning to fray its ability to provide for all. The middle Zambezi communities – especially the Tonga, who were resettled for construction of Kariba Dam in the 1950s – rely on food aid to see them through most years, even during good rainy seasons. To these people, the construction of the dam came at great cost. The promised regional and local economic growth spurred by hydropower production has remained a dream. This year the Tonga people account for about 40% of the 1.2 million people in Zimbabwe requiring food aid.

Likewise, the people of the lower Zambezi basin are also in need of food aid this season, as they face temporal food insecurity likley to last until the next harvest. The current season’s crops have been affected by flooding from heavy rainfall in Northen Mozambique and parts of the Zambezi basin as well as huge continuous discharges from Kariba and Cahora Bassa dams that destroyed their crops and some infrastructure.

The Zambezi dams have badly affected the lower Zambezi valley in Mozambique. Changes to river flow below Cahora Bassa Dam adversely affected hundreds of thousands of downstream households and decimated the Zambezi Delta, one of the most productive and diverse wetland ecosystems in Africa. Due to the lack of the seasonal variations in flow, the once-lucrative delta prawn fishery has declined precipitously. Populations of Cape buffalo, waterbuck, reedbuck, zebra and hippo have declined by 95% as the now-dry floodplain opened the area to commercial poaching.

Today, a group of social and environmental scientists are working to promote the recovery of the lower Zambezi system through improved management of flows through the dams. There is official interest in the approach, but at the same time, growing pressure to develop numerous new dams on the river, including the farthest along, Mphanda Nkuwa in Mozambique. National, regional and international bodies all show irrational exuberance when it comes to developing the river even further: the Southern African Power Pool has almost $11 billion worth of new hydro dams in the wings, and a huge increase in diversions from the river for large irrigation projects is planned. Combined with the impacts of climate change, the Zambezi and its people may be facing lean times indeed.