Why rivers need permanent protection

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By Monti Aguirre
Editors Note: The following is from Issue 12.
Not everyone knows that the rise of modern environmental legislation started with a river – several of them, in fact.  
In the 1960s, after decades of rampant dam-building in the United States, the country’s waterways were suffering. Anglers found fish were becoming scarce in streams that had once been thick with them. Hunters found wildlife increasingly thin on the ground. Rafters found that rapids had been swallowed up by reservoirs, and the West’s great wild rivers had been transformed into stairsteps of stagnant water.
Fortunately, a small group of people realized that without intervention – and fast – the nation’s wild rivers would be a thing of the past. They began organizing, and writing their elected representatives. Their efforts paid off when, in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.
While the country had passed earlier pieces of environmental legislation, the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act kicked off a golden era of environmental legislation. It preceded the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and the rest of federal acts approved in the 1970s.
The language of the act is striking:
It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.
When he signed the legislation, President Johnson spoke movingly of the value of wild rivers: “...[O]ur own children and grandchildren will come to know and come to love the great forests and the wild rivers that we have protected and left to them….An unspoiled river is a very rare thing in this Nation today. Their flow and vitality have been harnessed by dams and too often they have been turned into open sewers by communities and by industries.”
Johnson’s words showed that what had once seemed like inexhaustible resources were, in fact, vulnerable. “It makes us all very fearful that all rivers will go this way unless somebody acts now to try to balance our river development.”
Johnson was right to be worried. While the Wild and Scenic River Act has successfully protected over 12,000 miles of American rivers, a full 17% of American rivers, around 600,000 miles, have been altered.
But even as President Johnson was signing ground-breaking river protection legislation domestically, the US dam industry was busily exporting its development model overseas. Soon, rivers across Asia and Latin America also found themselves facing a rising tide of concrete. This windfall for construction companies has been a tragedy for our wild rivers: Today, more than 57,000 large dams choke the world’s rivers. Over 3,700 more hydropower projects are proposed.
These numbers should raise alarm bells. Most new hydropower projects are proposed in biodiversity hotspots, where any alteration to the ecosystem’s delicate balance could lead to massive die-offs – this at a time when we’re already seeing unprecedented species loss. Worse, tens of thousands of people face violence, intimidation and displacement from their ancestral lands. If we don’t buck this trend, we won’t have any wild rivers left – or people living in harmony with them.
In my years campaigning against bad dams, we’ve won many battles and stopped many projects with our local partners. But I’ve come to understand that bad projects never really go away. They appear and reappear under new names, in slightly new locations, with a new set of financiers. Activists fighting these projects find themselves playing an exhausting game, squashing one project only to see three more pop up in its place. The money is just too tempting for dam builders hungry to raid public coffers for their benefit. The rights of the local communities are too easy to trample.
It’s time for river lovers to go upstream and do the important policy work that can end the battles over our most precious and iconic rivers. Now is the time for permanent river protection.
Permanent river protection is not just a nicety, it’s a necessity.
We’ve protected stands of mangroves, World Heritage sites, nature reserves, federal reserves – but rarely rivers. Yet rivers are a keystone in the web of life, providing water for drinking and irrigation, nurturing fish and land animals, and creating and nourishing the planet’s most productive farmland.
In some places, river protection is already happening. In Argentina, one dam – the Salto Grande Dam on the Uruguay River – had such a calamitous impact, flooding the old city of Federación and creating a belt of misery in the province of Entre Ríos, that Argentina’s Senate created a new law establishing the province as “free from dams.” September 25 was even declared “River Freedom Day.”
In Costa Rica, they’ve found an intriguing work-around: For each river they develop, they have pledged to protect another one from development. When the Reventazón Hydroelectric Project was built on the Reventazón River, the government ensured that another river, the Parismina, and its tributary, the Dos Novillos River, were permanently protected.
New Zealand has even guaranteed one river all the legal rights of a human being. The Whanganui River is now a protected entity, and an indigenous community with strong cultural ties to the waterway is now its legal custodian.
Permanent river protection will look different in different countries. Some may integrate it into their river basin planning. Others may seek stand-alone laws. Some may rewrite their constitutions. But it’s important to recognize that passing a law is not enough.
Laws are important, but once a law is passed, our work isn’t done. Dams are constantly proposed; they’re stopped because of public opposition. Vigilance and public input will always be necessary.
To protect the future of rivers in the Amazon, Colombia, Chile and Peru, International Rivers is working with national and international organizations to facilitate the development of permanent protection for some of these countries’ most biodiverse and important rivers. We believe that it’s necessary to propose permanent legislative protection for rivers of outstanding value, and build a strong movement to support these legislative changes.
In Chile, we work with Geute Conservación Sur and Ecosistemas. Geute has prepared a legal brief analyzing the possible ways to get a law in place. In Colombia we are partnering with the Movimiento Ríos Vivos, first to seek protection of the Upper Magdalena River and in the long term, for the creation of a national law and begin to designate rivers for protection. In Ecuador and Perú, we are building relationships with the Shuar, Achuar, Awajún and Wampis peoples to work toward the goal of reaching self-determination and legal protection for their rivers.
After years of degrading, channelizing, diverting and damming our rivers, many people are now seeing the light. They see that rivers are essential to the health of fisheries, agriculture, flood protection, drought protection and the water supply. They understand that rivers are hotspots of biodiversity, and the carriers of culture. Dam the rivers, and we damn ourselves.

There is a path forward; some countries are already taking the first steps. It’s time to light the way. 

Monti Aguirre is the Latin America program coordinator for International Rivers, a Berkeley, California-based organization that works on four continents to “protect rivers and the rights of communities that depend on them.”