8 Benefits of Healthy, Flowing Rivers


The millions of miles of rivers and streams that cross our planet might seem like an almost endless source of fresh water. But rivers, streams, lakes and ponds together make up just 0.007% of the fresh water on Earth (the rest is found in ice caps, glaciers and groundwater), and many are seriously threatened by climate change. pollution, dams and man-made diversions. evils that reduce the ability of these water bodies to support people and other species.

In many parts of the world, rivers and streams are so polluted that they can no longer support aquatic life and are poisoning the inhabitants. In Africa, Australia, Russia, and South America, diversions of major waterways for agriculture and other uses have altered seasonal flooding of basins to an extent that affects centuries-old wildlife migrations and causes climatic changes. A study published in the journal Nature in 2019 determined that only 37% of rivers over 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) long remain free throughout their length, and only 23% flow uninterrupted to the ocean. In the United States, dams have cut off ancient spawning routes, causing alarming declines in some salmon populations and affecting entire ecosystems that depend on these species.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to reverse these trends, if policymakers around the world recognize the immense value of healthy, flowing rivers and act quickly and ambitiously to protect them. To celebrate world rivers day September 25, here are eight benefits of saving rivers.

The Rogue River basin in southwestern Oregon is the source of drinking water for more than 200,000 people.

Flickr User

1. Protects drinking water sources.

The condition of rivers directly affects the quality of the drinking water they provide. Water from clean, healthy rivers requires less filtration than water from polluted rivers.


Australia’s Fitzroy (Martuwarra) River, which is listed as a National Heritage Area for its environmental and cultural values, is the largest recorded Aboriginal cultural heritage site in Western Australia.

Getty Images

Since the dawn of civilization, rivers have played a central role in culture and history – as trade routes, ceremonial sites and the heart of human settlements. For Indigenous Australians, rivers are living ancestral beings. Tribes in western North America hold annual salmon spawning celebrations. The ancient Egyptians held their Wepet-Renpet (New Year) festival on the Nile. And along the coast of Chaiten in Chilean Patagonia, indigenous peoples practice shellfish fishing, fishing, seaweed gathering and other ancestral cultural practices.


The Roper River, the second longest river in Australia’s Northern Territory, is fed by rainfall and springs and supports an array of wildlife in the Roper Valley.

Krystle Wright

3. Keepreservoirs of fauna and biodiversity.

According to research published by the Ecological Society of America.

Rivers represent only a fraction of the 0.007% of Earth’s fresh water mentioned above, but they are home to a disproportionate amount of biodiversity. For example, freshwater habitats are home to almost 10% of all animal species, including a third of all invertebrates. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, “[o]More than 140,000 described species, including 55% of all fish, depend on freshwater habitats for their survival.


Ayelén Barría Ojeda, 18, paddles the Futaleufú River in Chilean Patagonia as part of the Chicas al Agua program.

Ricardo Flores

Around the world, free-flowing rivers attract legions of boaters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Chile’s Futaleufú River, like other internationally renowned whitewaters, has become the epicenter of recreational and tourist activities. Futaleufú Riverkeeper, a local organization, launched the Chicas al Agua (Girls on the Water) to teach high school girls to kayak and educate them about local environmental issues, producing not only kayakers but also “Guardians of the Futaleufú”.

Additionally, 2020 data from the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis indicates that outdoor recreation activities in the United States generated $688 billion in economic output and supported 4.3 million jobs worldwide. country. Of this amount, boating, fishing, and other river-related activities accounted for more than $30 billion of the United States’ annual gross output. This spending directly benefits businesses of all sizes and boosts the economies of rural and urban communities across the country.


The removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams—in 2011 and 2014, respectively—on the Elwha River in Washington State allowed the river to flow freely from the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The removal of the dam restored a critical floodplain, among many benefits.

John Gusman

River channels, canyons, and floodplains form over eons to accommodate changing water levels. Altering river flows, for example through the construction of dams or culverts, disrupts these natural controls, disconnects rivers from critical floodplains and often puts communities at higher risk of catastrophic flood damage. Additionally, many dams are so old that they have become hazards to nearby communities. Failures in 2017 at the Oroville Dam in northern California and the 90-year-old Guajataca Dam in Puerto Rico exacerbated flooding from the storm and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.


Riverbeds in the Channel Country of Western Queensland, Australia, can remain generally dry for years between heavy rains. But when the rains return, they fill and overflow the hundreds of braided channels, submerging millions of acres of floodplains and bringing nutrients to a vast area that spans four states and territories.

Helene Commens

Rivers are one of nature’s primary transport systems, transporting nutrients, minerals and fine sediments to the ocean – often from alpine environments hundreds of kilometers away – and facilitating the transfer of other nutrients to upstream, through migrating species such as salmon.

Free-flowing waterways in unaltered, connected river systems transport sediment to floodplains, providing critical habitats and food for wildlife. Sediment that accumulates in river deltas often creates natural buffers to help protect coastal areas from sea level rise. The mouths of free-flowing rivers are home to an extremely rich biodiversity of birds, mammals marine life, fish and other marine species.

These nutrient transfers can drive entire industries, such as prawn and barramundi fishing off the northern coast of Australia.


A reservoir on the Snake River in Washington State.

Shelly Hank
Washington State University

7. Help fight climate change.

Flooding large areas with dams can cause microorganisms to break down organic matter – trees and grasses that lined a river, for example. When this process occurs without oxygen, it often releases methane, a known greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. A study published in 2016 in the journal Biosciences found that annual global greenhouse gas emissions from reservoirs are equivalent to those of all of Canada, or about 1.3% of human-caused emissions. Removing dams and restoring and protecting free-flowing rivers can reduce this percentage.

Taku River Salmon

Salmon from the Taku River, which stretches from the mountains of British Columbia to Juneau, Alaska, contribute more than $6.1 million annually to the regional fishing economy.

Rick Loomis
Getty Images

8. Preserve a sustainable source of food.

Rivers feed people – fish, freshwater snails, mussels, crayfish, etc. Around the world, many indigenous and local communities rely on healthy rivers as “supermarkets”. Studies have shown that more than half of the protein consumed in many indigenous communities in the river basins of northern Australia comes directly from fishing in the rivers and hunting in the floodplains they feed. In the American Pacific Northwest, tribes have relied on salmon as their primary food source for thousands of years.

By working to protect and restore the world’s free-flowing rivers, policy makers can show their commitment to a healthy and sustainable future, for their constituents and all life on Earth.

Steve Ganey is Vice President and Lauren Spurrier is Senior Director of The Pew Charitable Trusts.


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