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Unprotected: Urgent Need To Safeguard More Of The World’s Remaining Free-Flowing Rivers

In this post, I’ll ask a basic question: what extent of the world’s rivers are located within national parks and other formally designated protected areas? The answers provide insight about global patterns of protection – but also about how freshwater systems are considered within conservation planning and global policy goals for protecting nature.

The year 2021 will see governments around the world agree to a set of commitments to protect and restore nature, striving to simultaneously stabilize the climate while reversing the decline of ecosystems and wildlife—with these objectives embedded within the broader Sustainable Development Goals. No small task.

Though representing only about 1% of the earth’s surface, freshwater ecosystems and resources provide disproportionately high benefits and services to people.  Despite this value, freshwater ecosystems, and their associated wildlife, are declining at a far faster rate than their counterparts on land or in the ocean.

Given this context, one might assume that freshwater systems receive a level of focused attention commensurate to their value and threat.  However, to date, freshwater systems have actually received less attention during conservation planning—such as establishing national parks or global goals—than terrestrial or marine habitats and are often overlooked by planners and decision makers or lumped in with terrestrial habitats.

To secure the diverse values of freshwater systems for the long term, we need to increase protections for freshwater systems, such as rivers and wetlands, and better integrate them within conservation planning, goal setting, and monitoring. To that end, a newly formed coalition of academic and conservation organizations (including my employer, WWF) collaborated to produce a special issue of the journal Sustainability focused on mechanisms for protecting rivers.

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In the paper that I led in the special issue, we quantified the kilometers of rivers that are located within the boundaries of protected areas.  In addition to all rivers, we also focused on a specific type—those rivers designated as free-flowing—due to their distinct environmental and social values.

Formal protected areas, such as national parks, are the most common and traditional mechanism for protecting natural ecosystems, including rivers, and encompass a greater extent of rivers than any other protection mechanism, by far.  But by answering this question, our analyses revealed not just the extent of rivers within protected areas, but also some limitations of this approach for effectively protecting them. In a subsequent post I’ll review the other papers in this special issue and how they explore a broader toolbox of mechanisms for protecting rivers.

But first, what extent of the world’s rivers are found within protected areas?

The most recent global objective relevant for river protection, within the Aichi Biodiversity Targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity, called for the protection of 17% of freshwater habitats by 2020.  

We found that 16% of all river kilometers, and 17% of all free-flowing river kilometers, are within protected areas. At first glance, these results suggest that, as far as rivers go, the Aichi Target for freshwater habitats has been achieved (or nearly achieved). But let’s taken a second glance, or even a good hard look, at those results.

A few questions and concerns emerge:

·       Considerable geographic variation in levels of protection. While some regions of the world have achieved high levels of protection for rivers, many regions have minimal protection.

·       Considerable variation in protection based on size of rivers. In most countries, the largest rivers—those that support the most species and most productive fisheries—have significantly less extent of protection than medium and small rivers.

·       In some countries, dams have been, and may continue to be, developed on rivers in protected areas.

·       Rivers within protected areas, and particularly free-flowing rivers, can be negatively impacted by dam construction outside protected area boundaries.

While the global extent of river kilometers in protected areas is quite close to the Aichi target level of 17% (and free-flowing rivers are at that target level), this global result is skewed by the very high levels of protection in the Amazon River basin. At the level of individual countries, less than half (43%) have achieved the 17% level while more than 1/3 of all countries have less than 10% of river kilometers in protected areas. Looking at the map below shows that most of the lower 48 states of the United States, most of southern South America, and most of Asia, north Africa and the Middle East have less than 10% of river kilometers in protected areas.

Further, large rivers generally have lower levels of protection than smaller rivers. The world’s largest size of rivers (e.g., the downstream sections of rivers like the Amazon, Mississippi, Yangtze and Mekong) are found in only 15 countries. In these countries, an average of 20% of all river kilometers are within protected areas—but for large rivers, the extent of protection is about 1/3 less, with an average of 13% of kilometers in protected areas.  These large rivers tend to support more species of freshwater fish and wildlife than smaller rivers. They also support most of the harvest of freshwater fish from rivers globally (such as the lower Mekong, which yields approximately 20% of all global freshwater fish harvest).

Finally, rivers within protected areas can still be vulnerable to negative impacts from dams. Dams have been built in protected areas, and several countries, including Brazil, have frequently changed the boundaries of protected areas to facilitate dam construction (thus, the new dam isn’t technically in a national park, but is located where a park was.). Further, more than 500 dams have been proposed to be built within protected areas around the world (14% of all known proposed hydropower projects in the world).  

Clearly, the construction of a dam on a river within a park would alter the values of the river intended to be protected. But those river values—particularly those of free-flowing rivers—can also be degraded by dams constructed outside of protected area boundaries. That’s because the values of a free-flowing river encompass several that require connectivity—to both upstream tributaries and downstream habitats. For example, a key value of a free-flowing river in a protected area may be the presence of fish, such as salmon, that migrate upstream from the ocean; a dam even one hundred kilometers downstream from the park would compromise that value. The river would still be within the boundaries of a park, but it would no longer be a free-flowing river.

Nepal provides a clear example of this risk to rivers in protected areas. Nearly one quarter of all proposed dams in Nepal are planned within the boundaries of protected areas (67 out of 285 proposed dams). If these dams were built, the extent of free-flowing river kilometers in Nepal’s protected areas would decline by 40%, affecting 65 rivers. Of these rivers, 41 would lose their free-flowing status because of a new hydropower dam built inside of the protected area, while 24 rivers would lose their free-flowing status because of a dam built outside of the protected area boundaries, either up- or downstream.

Improving protections for rivers

While the extent of rivers in protected areas approximately matches the Aichi Target of 17%, clearly more work remains. The relevant Aichi Target (Target 11) states that the protection should be implemented through “ecologically representative and well-connected systems.” The fact that such a large portion of river basins around the world fall below the 17% level indicates that current protection is not “ecologically representative.” The next round of commitments, decided later this year, is also likely increase the target level of protection from 17% to at least 30%.

The ongoing vulnerability of rivers in protected areas to dam construction—both within protected areas or outside their boundaries—also suggests the need to shore up the integrity of protected areas and to augment the suite of tools used to protect rivers, including measures that can maintain the connectivity required by free-flowing rivers. A broad range of organizations has called for explicit inclusion of river connectivity metrics in the next round of commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity — these can be found in the recommendations from UN Water, the Emergency Recovery Plan for freshwater, and a motion adopted during the World Conservation Congress

To improve existing protections—and then scale them up considerably—will clearly require a proliferation of innovative mechanisms for river protection. The tool box will still include traditional protected areas, but will need to continue to diversify to encompass a range of other tools. The other articles in this special issue offer a sample of what could be in that future toolbox, and I’ll review those in my next post.

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