Undervaluing ‘hidden’ benefits of rivers undermines economies and sustainable development, warns new report | WWF
Undervaluing ‘hidden’ benefits of rivers undermines economies and sustainable development, warns new report

Posted on 26 August 2018

WWF's report highlights the capacity of healthy rivers to help mitigate natural disasters
As floods and droughts ravage communities and countries worldwide, a WWF report published today highlights the capacity of healthy rivers to help mitigate these natural disasters but warns that all these ‘hidden’ benefits of rivers could be lost if they continue to be undervalued and overlooked.

The Valuing Rivers report, released on the opening day of World Water Week in Stockholm, outlines how the traditionally narrow view of rivers as primarily sources of water and power puts other critical benefits at risk, from freshwater fisheries to natural flood protection for cities and sediment flows that keep the world’s deltas above the rising seas. While these directly benefit hundreds of millions of people, they are often overlooked and remain a low priority for decision makers – until they disappear and crises occur.

The report shows how this short-sighted approach that has proven costly across the globe and could result in even greater economic losses in the future. Already, 19 per cent of global GDP comes from watersheds with high or very high water risk, while most of the world’s great deltas – including the Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Nile and Yangtze – are sinking and shrinking.

With rivers both in Europe and globally under growing pressure from dam development, climate change and soaring demand for water to irrigate farms and fuel hydropower plants, the report provides a new framework for improving how societies measure, value and promote rivers’ diverse benefits and offers solutions to support better decisions and management.

In Europe, only 40% of European surface waters are currently considered healthy (EEA, 2018), despite the EU Water Framework Directive’s legal obligation to protect and restore Europe’s freshwater bodies.

“Today’s report clearly shows that healthy rivers and lakes bring often ignored benefits to people and economies, and that strong legislation is key in protecting freshwater bodies. The failure by governments to recognise the socio-economic values generated by the improvement in water status has contributed to the low ambition in reaching the objectives of the EU water law," said Martina Mlinaric, Senior Policy Officer, Water, WWF European Policy Office. 

"As the EU Water Framework Directive undergoes its current review, we urge the EU and its Member States to take into the account these benefits and use this opportunity to strengthen water management in Europe, rather than weaken this visionary piece of legislation. Failing this, it is people, nature and economies that will pay the ultimate price,” she added.

Along with their central role in many cultures and religions, the report shows that healthy rivers, particularly free-flowing rivers, provide a range of extremely valuable – and increasingly vulnerable – benefits to people across the planet.

“Collapsing fisheries and disappearing deltas are just two examples of the collateral damage caused by our failure to value rivers for all their diverse benefits – not just the water flowing down them,” said Stuart Orr, WWF Freshwater Practice Lead. “We need to urgently transform the way we value and manage our rivers, or we risk undermining economies and global efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals.”

Additional information:

Some key findings of the report include:
  • 2 billion people rely directly on rivers for their drinking water;
  • 500 million people live on deltas that can only be sustained by sediment from rivers;
  • 25 per cent of the world’s food production depends on irrigation from rivers;
  • At least 12 million tonnes of freshwater fish are caught each year, providing food and livelihoods for tens of millions of people.

About the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD)

The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), which came into force in 2000, is one of the EU’s most progressive pieces of environmental legislation, requiring the protection, enhancement and restoration of our rivers, wetlands, lakes and coastal waters. Under Directive, EU governments have committed to ensure no deterioration and achieve good status for the vast majority of all water bodies by 2015, and at the very latest by 2027.

Where implemented, the Water Framework Directive has proved to be effective in achieving its goals of good water status and non-deterioration, successfully balancing environmental, social and economic requirements.
The Water Framework Directive is currently undergoing its standard review in the form of a ‘fitness check’ to assess its relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, coherence and EU added value. This will include a stakeholder consultation and a public consultation, which is expected to be launched in September 2018.

For more information, please contact:

Richard Lee | Communications Manager | WWF Freshwater Practice | rlee@wwfint.org; +3162363483

Angelika Pullen, Communications Director, WWF European Policy Office apullen@wwf.eu. +32 473 947 966
© Miklos Toldi