How do healthy rivers benefit society?

How do healthy rivers benefit society?

WWF literature review and framework proposal on the nature and study of river-society relationships and systems.

Around the world, river system degradation and vulnerability is undermining their ability to provide critical ecosystem benefits and services that many communities rely upon. Narrow, often economically-minded objectives guiding policy-makers can exacerbate the anthropogenic pressure on such ecosystems, necessitating the need for evidence-based information on the relationship that rivers and society share in order to avoid injustice and unintended consequences.

To this end, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) decided to conduct a multi-stage critical review of the evidence on river-society relationships in literature, and propose a framework for the detailed exploration of specific causal linkages between river health and benefits to society, including indicators that might be used for assessing benefits. Over 100 papers were chosen for review, with the authors noting a significant difference between the literature on ecosystem services, which focused on ecology and conservation, and water resource management, which instead focused on harnessing rivers for human benefit. The proposed framework seeks to synthesise these two approaches, while also drawing on social sciences such as political economy research. Primarily a research tool, the framework can also inform the design, monitoring, and evaluation of WWF freshwater programmes.

The report summarises the findings of the review according to the themes laid out in the format of the report:

  • The benefits societies derive from rivers: rivers can provide a number of benefits to society, from supporting livelihoods, nurturing social relations and well-being, and contributing to food-, energy-, and water-security. However,,this is dependent on how rivers are managed; a river exploited for a narrow range of objectives can come at a detrimental cost to both river health and human needs. A lack of cross-sectoral cooperation and integrated planning is failing to tackle anthropogenic pressures on river systems, and a focus on water quantity is obscuring the need for a focus on water quality also.
  • Linkages between social benefits and river health: cultural, aesthetic, and livelihoods are all dependent on rivers having a good overall health, while economic benefits such as hydropower and commercial farming often only rely on a few aspects of river health, such as water flow. The relationship between river health and societal benefits is highly complex, and subject to uncertainties, confounding factors, and systemic feedback loops. Causal chains are many and clear, yet irreducible to simple axioms due to the number of context-unique variables at play.
  • Trade-offs and distribution of benefits: cultural and institutional constraints can differentiate access and entitlements to river systems, particularly around gender. Poorer households are also disproportionately excluded from benefiting from income generating activities. Possibly the largest trade-off is the impact on river health that can arise from economic objectives concerning large-scale infrastructure and industry projects. In such cases, the poorest and most marginalised groups often lose-out.
  • The report concludes that a stronger multi-disciplinary approach is required to inform sustainable development and make the water sector as a whole the centre of policy-making. Considerations of trade-offs and externalities have to be adequately addressed in planning, and a general shift is needed from seeing river systems from the perspective of consumers of water, to viewing them as important components of water security. Additionally, the authors suggest that more research is needed to better understand the temporal and spatial dimensions of river-society relationships, and that agencies such as the WWF should try to promote an integrated framing of river health as being in the interests of powerful decision makers.

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