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What makes a good freshwater programme?


WWF has been working with HSBC for 15 years – we’ve learned a thing or two over the years. A new report looks back on some of the things that helped us have a real impact on freshwater conservation during the first phase of our latest partnership, the HSBC Water Programme.

Read the full “Five Years, Five River Basins” report (PDF); this blog describes some of the work our freshwater teams have done in a bit more detail.

We can’t do it alone

It’s all about working in partnership. From community-led water user groups in the Mara (Kenya and Tanzania) to textile companies in the Yangtze (China), partnerships have been crucial in helping us to reach thousands with our conservation messages. Similarly, having government support has, in many cases, been the single most important factor in helping drive change and deliver a lasting impact.

The Pantanal Pact is a perfect example of what working with others can achieve. Having restored several springs upstream of Brazil’s Pantanal wetland, we realised we’d need to work across a huge area to have the kind of impact we needed. We worked with civil society, the private sector and governments at municipal and state level to create a political framework: the Pantanal Pact. The Pact aims to secure long-lasting commitments to protect freshwater resources; to date, all 25 target municipalities and 23 other organisations have signed up.

If you want to find out more about the Pantanal Pact, read some of our previous blog posts on the topic.

Putting people at the centre of things

Human societies have been indivisibly connected to rivers for thousands of years. Rivers provide us with drinking water, fish to eat, and energy; transport our goods; irrigate our crops; and even fulfil our spiritual needs, among many other things. People rely on rivers, but in order to protect and preserve these freshwater lifelines (through strategic conservation programmes) local people and other stakeholders need to be on board.

Hubei province is China’s top producer of farmed fish; its aquaculture industry supports the livelihoods of 1.2 million people. To address the pollution caused by fish farming, we worked with aquaculture companies and cooperatives to develop and promote improved standards without compromising the livelihoods of local people. For example, we improved one cooperative’s traditional grass carp feeding method, helping the fish farmers depend less on purchased feed and sell their high-quality fish directly to a major buyer.

A farmer cuts grass to feed grass carp at the Hongxianxi Co-operative in the Yangtze river basin ©WWF-UKA farmer cuts grass to feed grass carp at the Hongxianxi Co-operative in the Yangtze river basin ©WWF-UK

The power of positivity

Over the past five years, we focused on solutions and benefits by highlighting the positive aspects of engaging with freshwater conservation. Benefits can be financial, for example payback periods for business investments, but they can also include things like avoiding risks (for example to a business’ reputation) or even improving food security. We often looked for the sweet spot where conservation aligns with other things that matter to people, such as reducing waterborne diseases in the Pantanal or improving food safety for Yangtze fish consumers.

Demonstrating successes, creating quick wins and providing opportunities for communities to take direct practical action provided a boost for the freshwater programmes’ conservation activities. For example in India, concrete projects like urban wetland surveys and clean-up drives allowed Mitras ‘friends of the river’ (a volunteer-led initiative with thousands of members) to contribute to the programme, feel more connected to the ecosystems on which they depend, and ultimately use their personal experiences to inspire others to take action.

Keep it simple

What we need are conservation solutions that will carry on even after one of our projects is over: for this, simplicity can be our friend. For example, our work on changing farming practices focused largely on using local knowledge, ingredients and materials by promoting locally-appropriate, proven, cost-effective and simple measures.

In Kenya specifically, we needed to reduce the amount of fertile topsoil washing off farms and into the Mara River, to reduce demand on water resources and to help farmers develop greater resilience to droughts. The simple land management measures we put in place included planting napier grass buffer strips and ground cover crops as well as creating drinking areas for cattle. Farmers’ yield increases helped us spread the word, and importantly helped ensure that they will carry on once we’re no longer there.

WWF-Kenya's Kennedy Onyango and Nancy Rono, a farmer, inspect Nancy's crops ©Jonathan Caramanus / Green Renaissance / WWF-UKWWF-Kenya’s Kennedy Onyango and Nancy Rono, a farmer, inspect Nancy’s crops ©Jonathan Caramanus / Green Renaissance / WWF-UK

Know what you’re doing

It might sound obvious, but we need information to help us understand conservation challenges and plan the best way to address them. Some of the questions we need to answer include: What’s causing the problem, and how big is it? Where will addressing it will have the biggest impact? What types of information can sway decision makers? Which groups of people will be affected and how can we best help them? The list goes on.

In the Mekong (we work in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam), population surveys and other techniques helped us plan freshwater species conservation. For example, forensic examinations helped us find out what is causing Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin deaths, while pioneering environmental DNA research (identifying traces left by species in the water) helped detect the elusive Mekong giant catfish – the largest freshwater fish in the world. We also produced a report to show decision makers the central role the Mekong River plays in the region’s economies, helping us in our influencing and advocacy work.

Before you go…

As the HSBC Water Programme embarks on its second phase, our river basin programmes will continue to build on these success factors and strive for even greater, more ambitious wins. Find out more about the HSBC Water Programme.

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