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Do we need rivers to secure water for development?


Well it is world wetlands day, so the answer is of course “yes”! But what this means in practice isn’t always so obvious. Rivers are often neglected in water security discourses focused on economic growth. There appears to be a conceptual gap between these narratives and ecosystem services research which advocates for the protection of rivers.

Nile River at Sunset in Jinja, Uganda © Helen Parker / ODINile River at Sunset in Jinja, Uganda © Helen Parker / ODI

Our research tries to bridge this gap by exploring the complex relationship between rivers and society, unveiling how rivers provide important benefits and are therefore a key component in the quest for sustainable development.

Here we highlight five key points about rivers and their potential benefits, as a useful starting point to optimise river management and secure water for development.

Rivers provide a wide range of benefits to society, and these benefits depend on river health in different ways

The potential social, economic and strategic benefits that rivers provide are shown below. Many social benefits derived from rivers are dependent on good ‘all round’ river health. These include tourism, use of the river for cultural practices, and livelihoods which depend on inland fisheries or flood recession agriculture. Economic benefits, such as those derived from commercial agriculture or hydropower, tend to rely on one or two aspects of river health, primarily flow, and require built infrastructure such as dams. Strategic benefits, such as poverty reduction and food security, are indirectly related to river health and the causal relationships are more difficult to prove. Optimal river management recognises the numerous complex links between river health and benefits to society.

Societal benefits provided by rivers © ODISocietal benefits provided by rivers © ODI

Not all benefits from rivers are mutually compatible

Some river benefits, particularly those requiring large infrastructure, have significant trade-offs. For example, dams built for hydropower or large scale irrigation exert environmental, economic and social costs and can have negative feedbacks on river health. Optimal river management involves better accounting for the costs of large infrastructure in river development decision making.

Often rivers are managed for a narrow range of benefits

Major river development is often focused on delivering a single or narrow range of objectives, such as power generation or flood protection.  This limits the realisation of other benefits and presents trade-offs in terms of river health and other human needs. Poor river management can also increase the risks associated with rivers, including flooding and disease. Optimal river management involves managing rivers to achieve a wide range of benefits.

Murchison Falls, the Nile River in Uganda © Helen Parker / ODI Murchison Falls, the Nile River in Uganda © Helen Parker / ODI

The distribution of river benefits to society is often uneven

People who live in close proximity to rivers may bear a high proportion of the costs of river development, such as those communities who are displaced by hydropower dam construction, while other groups in society benefit. In addition the poor are often disproportionately affected by the negative environmental impacts of river development, as poorer households rely on functional river ecosystems for their livelihoods. Meanwhile, a person’s ability to access benefits often depends on social structures and informal rules, for example gender or caste. Formal institutions and decisions made in favour of powerful actors may exclude marginal groups. Optimal river management requires explicit consideration of who wins and who loses, and how to compensate the latter.

“Hardware” and “software” is needed to realise river benefits

Reaping river benefits requires “hardware” such as dams and transport, as well as “software” such as regulations, permits and market access. For example, sluice gates and irrigation channels are needed to deliver irrigation water, but management institutions, regulations and water permits are needed to enable farmers to access and use water effectively. The ability of farmers to earn income from irrigation water is also contingent on access to farm inputs, markets and market prices, which depends on other variables. Having a healthy river is not enough: optimal river management for multiple benefits requires a mix of hardware and software.

A fisherman prepares for the evening catch, near Gisenyi, Rwanda © Helen Parker / ODIA fisherman prepares for the evening catch, near Gisenyi, Rwanda © Helen Parker / ODI

Our research urges decision makers to take a holistic view which recognises the range of benefits offered by rivers and strives for optimal river management.  Protecting rivers isn’t the whole answer for securing water for sustainable development, but an essential part of it.

Find out more about our work on Rivers and Lakes

This blog is written in collaboration with Helen Parker, Naomi Oates (ODI) and Dave Tickner (WWF_UK)

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