10 Rivers most at Risk

What makes a river so restful to people is that it doesn’t have any doubt - it is sure to get where it is going, and it doesn’t want to go anywhere else.

Hal Boyle, Pulitzer prize-winning columnist

Perhaps there was a time when that was true, but no longer.

Even the greatest of the world’s rivers can no longer be assured of reaching the sea unhindered.
The Rio Grande/Rio Bravo River, on the border of the U.S. and Mexico, often fails to reach the Gulf of Mexico. Its strength sapped by dams and irrigation works diverting water to farmers’ fields and city water supplies.

The Indus, the Nile, the Murray-Darling, the Colorado... these are once mighty rivers that now struggle to touch their oceans and seas.

In fact, water extraction is only one of the daunting challenges that a river faces as it makes its way to its terminus.

  • Dams and channelization destroy habitats, cut rivers off from their floodplains, and alter the natural ebb and flow on which a river’s plants and animals depend.
  • Invasive species crowd a river's banks, driving out their native fishes, and choking their courses.
  • Pollution fouls their waters, sometimes turning life-giving rivers into serious threats to human health.
  • And climate change threatens to alter all the rules that rivers have lived by for thousands of years.

Fact: river basins are threatened and that threatens us
Rivers basins are the way nature gathers and delivers water for human use.

River basins provide electricity generation, transport, recreation and tourism, and valuable but often unaccounted flood and drought regulation, sediment and nutrient retention, and habitat for diverse fauna and flora.

Life that lives in and around these river basins is an important source of food, income, and livelihood. It is little surprise that studies have estimated the economic value of river basins in the billions of dollars.

We need to recognise the threats river basins face in order to encourage dialogue, provoke debate, and urge governments and other stakeholders to take action before it is too late.

The top 10 rivers at risk
To do this, WWF has selected the top 10 major rivers that, in our view, either
  1. already suffer most grievously under the weight of these threats, or
  2. are bracing for the heaviest impacts.
WWF assessed the 6 most important threats based on their known impact on roughly 225 river basins.

These are:
  • dams and infrastructure,
  • excessive water extraction,
  • climate change,
  • invasive species,
  • over-fishing, and
  • pollution.
Focusing our analysis on watersheds with high ecological importance and those affecting large human populations, with a view to continental representation, the 10 most endangered rivers emerge as the:

 / ©: NASA Earth Observatory
Satellite photo of the Yangtze. The Xiling Gorge, which is the easternmost of the three big gorges along the Yangtze is the middle. Picture is east (top) to west (bottom). July 17, 2000.
© NASA Earth Observatory

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