This week, I join hundreds of activists traveling to rural Mexico to attend Rivers for Life 3, a global gathering of people whose livelihoods and communities have been harmed or are threatened by destructive dams. Hailing from river-based communities from the Amazon to the Zambezi, the participants are the first-defenders of healthy rivers, and the first to feel the effects of poor river management.
It comes as no surprise to those attending the meeting that the world's rivers are in crisis. These people are the human "canaries" of riverine health; along with millions of dam-affected people before them, they have paid the price for a half-century of uncontrolled dam building with their farmlands, their fisheries, their forests and other natural riches that dams destroy.
A cover story in the September 29 issue of Nature details the combined effects on the world's rivers of stressors -- such as big dams, pollution, agricultural runoff, the conversion of wetlands and the introduction of exotic species.
It's a grim picture.
Don't turn away -- you're likely in the picture too. The scientists reveal that nearly 80% of humans live in areas where river waters are highly threatened. At risk is our water security, and the aquatic environments that support thousands of unknown species of plants and animals.
The report was authored by an international team of scientists hailing from many disciplines. One of the team's leaders, Charles Vörösmarty of the City University of New York, says: "What we've discovered is that when you map out these many sources of threat, you see a fully global syndrome of river degradation. We know it is far more cost-effective to protect these water systems in the first place ... Treating the symptoms rather than the underlying causes makes little sense from a water security standpoint, a biodiversity standpoint, or, for that matter, an economic standpoint."
The authors said their findings are conservative, since there is insufficient information to account for additional stressors like pharmaceutical pollution, mining wastes and massive water diversions that have led to the dessication of many great rivers including the Colorado in the western United States, the Indus in Pakistan, the Yellow in China, and the Nile in Egypt.
Researchers found that even the world's richest countries have been unable to mitigate the worst impacts from our destructive approach to rivers. Call it a cautionary tale for the rest of the world: "Developing nations may be tempted to adopt the highly engineered solutions practiced traditionally across the rich nations. However, the developing world must decide if it is willing or able to invest the trillions of dollars in these costly solutions, which basically aim to treat the symptoms of degraded water and solve mismanagement problems rather than protect the resource in the first place."
First, do no harm should be our mantra for managing the planet's lifelines.
The scientists note that in this battle, knowledge is power. "It is absolutely essential to have information and tools that can be shared across nations," stresses Vörösmarty. "Our knowledge of these systems is progressively worsening as nations fail to invest in basic monitoring."
He likened the situation to treating patients in an emergency room without monitoring their vital signs. "We are losing our capacity to monitor [rivers'] vital life signs. The investment in monitoring the world's fresh water would yield huge returns in terms of avoiding costly conflicts, providing food security, preserving unique life forms and a host of other valuable benefits. These benefits would cost pennies on the dollar."
Those gathering in Temacapulin, Mexico right now can tell you first-hand about the high cost of damaged rivers, and the value of preserving our life-giving waterways. We'll be reporting on their stories from the field in the coming weeks., as well as participants' good ideas for a better, more just future.