© Shutterstock / Suriya99 / WWF
Rivers are lifelines for people and nature. From our earliest civilizations to the mega-cities of today, we have built along rivers due to the benefits they provide - water for drinking and irrigation,  fisheries, fertile floodplain fields, stable deltas, transportation and livelihoods - as well as their central role in so many of our cultures. They are also home to incredible biodiversity and sustain countless other species on land and in the ocean. Each week, we will profile one of the most extraordinary rivers.

© WWF / Folke Wulf


#3 Kavango

The Kavango River (a.k.a Cubango in Angola and Okavango in Botswana) originates in Angola and flows for around 1200km to the south, where it joins the Cuito River. Together, they enter the flat basin of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana and spill into the Okavango Delta – the world’s largest inland delta. Regarded as one of Africa’s Seven Natural Wonders, this delta creates a dynamic wilderness unlike anything else on Earth. Its beautiful floodplains are rich in biodiversity and home to some of the most endangered large mammals in the world. A thriving nature-based tourism industry is key to the local and national economy, while freshwater fishes are crucial to local communities' food security and livelihoods. But the river that feeds the delta is at risk. The largest threat is the proposed hydropower dam at Mucundi in Angola, which would fragment the river and alter the natural flow of water, sediments, and nutrients that keep the delta healthy. The Kavango is already under pressure from the growing demand for water for agriculture and the impacts of climate change - a disruption of this free-flowing river would further undermine its resilience, and the delta would eventually succumb. But there are alternatives. Investments in renewables such as solar and wind promise a faster path to power generation and are LowCx3 energy sources - low carbon, low cost, and low conflict with rivers and communities. Sustainable development of the region is possible, but only by safeguarding the river that flows through its heart. The local inhabitants of Angola call Kavango's source waters "Fonte da Vida"- the Source of Life. By protecting these countries’ life source, we can power a better longer-term future for their people and nature. 

© W. Retter



The Isel is the last free-flowing glacial river in the European Alps. Its clear, cold waters flow almost 60km through gorges, gravel banks, and floodplain forests of Austria's East Tyrol region. Still in a near-natural state, it harbours many threatened species like the German tamarisk (Myricaria germanica) and draws tourists that power the local economy. But the future of the Isel is at risk. For years, developers have been trying to build new hydropower on the river and its tributaries, although over 1,000 hydropower plants are already in operation across Tyrol. And authorities appear unwilling to stop them, as six plants are planned, in the approval process, or under construction in the basin. These dams will alter the natural flow of water and sediment, threatening these free-flowing rivers' benefits. WWF's 10 Rivers at Risk report shows that these plants will produce negligible amounts of power at far from little cost, plus the high cost to nature and people – like the €30 million power plant which will provide electricity to only 1.100 local people, besides getting the municipality into debt to finance the project located at a site prone to landslides, floods, and avalanches. WWF and 43 groups, including prominent scientific voices, are calling for an end to all new hydropower development in the Isel and across the region. Renewable alternatives (e.g., solar and wind) offer a better path as they are LowCx3 - low carbon, low cost, and low conflict with rivers and communities. This way, authorities can protect one of Europe's last natural river systems to benefit nature and future generations. 

© Zig Koch / WWF-Brazil


#1 Tapajós

Brazil's Tapajós River is one of the largest, free-flowing tributaries of the Amazon, flowing for over 2000km through habitats ranging from the cerrado savanna to rainforests. It is also one of the few fast-flowing, clearwater rivers in the region, boasting extraordinarily rich biodiversity like the endangered river dolphin Tucuxi. Indigenous people and local communities also depend on Tapajós' natural flows and flood pulses – it supports fisheries, fertilizes fields, and provides clean water, sustaining livelihoods and cultures. But all these benefits are under threat, especially from hydropower dams. Regarded as one of the best remaining hydropower generation opportunities, there are 42 dams planned in the Tapajós River. WWF's 10 Rivers at Risk report  states that the region will suffer disastrous environmental and social consequences if these dams are built, such as flooding around 2,000km2 of Indigenous territories by reservoirs. It would also promote deforestation, which generates greenhouse gas emissions - hindering efforts to tackle the climate crisis. Thanks to the indigenous Munduruku tribe, who've fought years of court battles to protect their lands, the largest proposed dam at São Luiz do Tapajós was cancelled in 2016. But there are still many on the drawing board. Instead of pursuing 20th-century infrastructure solutions, Brazil should reassess the best energy mix by factoring in the plunging price of renewable alternatives, like solar and wind, and the full impact of these dams on communities, wildlife, and the climate. The hydropower plans on the Tapajós should be replaced by renewable energy that is LowCx3: low carbon, low cost, and low conflict with communities and rivers.