Saving our free-flowing rivers

WWF_Rivers_final_background Source: WWF

24 May 19 - Source: Myanmar Times - When it's too late, we'll realise the signs were obvious. We'll look back at the staggering 83 percent decline in freshwater species populations – more than twice the rate of terrestrial and marine – and wonder why we didn't act to safeguard the rivers and lakes in which these species thrive. We'll remember the Ayeyarwady and Salween that provided the fish and rice for our daily food and wonder why we didn't protect these essential life-supporting arteries of our country. We are at a critical point for deciding the fate of the Ayeyarwady and Salween, and of all rivers worldwide. We need to fully understand and protect their value before it is too late.

For the first time, scientists have comprehensively mapped the state of our world's rivers in a study published in the international science journal Nature. They found that only 37pc of rivers longer than 1000 kilometres remain free-flowing over their entire length and only 23pc flow uninterrupted to the ocean. They are largely in the remote regions of the Arctic and of the Amazon and Congo basins. However, Myanmar is in the unique position of having two – the magnificent Ayeyarwady and Salween. These two rivers are the largest free-flowing rivers left in tropical Asia.

Rivers contribute to economic growth, food security, and human well-being. Globally, 2 billion people rely on rivers for drinking water, 25pc of the world's food production depends on irrigation from rivers and at least 12 million tonnes of freshwater fish are caught each year, providing food and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people. In Myanmar the Ayeyarwady and Salween feed us, maintaining our fertile deltas, sustaining our unique biodiversity and supporting healthy wetlands that act as a buffer against cyclones.

Hydropower poses huge threat

But these rivers are already under pressure and facing huge threats. The study found that dams are the leading cause of connectivity loss in river systems. Dams modify the natural flow of rivers and fragment their habitats. This prevents the free movement of species and disrupts flows of water, nutrients, and sediments, which in turn degrades the natural systems, and ultimately it is us humans that suffer by losing the benefits these natural systems provide. Globally we are now in the middle of a planned hydropower boom, with more than 3700 hydropower dams currently proposed or under construction. In Myanmar as many as 70 dams are proposed. In the coming years, a combination of infrastructure and climate change will further increase the pressures on rivers. Rising temperatures will impact rainfall and flow patterns, water quality, and biodiversity, while dam construction continues to segment rivers, trap sediment, and impede the movement of freshwater species.

We don't have to look far to see examples of those impacts. Although dam developers had promised to mitigate impacts along the Mekong River, its delta in Vietnam is sinking rapidly due to the combined effects of sea level rise, and from erosion caused by massive sand extraction. Scientists project that more than half will be underwater by the end of the century, threatening the livelihoods of millions. Even impacts from dams in Myanmar have started to show. Few people, for example, know that two-thirds of the fish species below Yeywa dam in Mandalay Region have disappeared since its construction.

Thankfully, there is still hope

We should learn from past mistakes around the globe. A new report by WWF and The Nature Conservancy demonstrates how renewable energy can solve the world's climate and energy challenge without sacrificing its remaining free-flowing rivers and the diverse benefits they provide to people and nature. We can build with nature, which safeguards critical resources for humans and nature for generations to come.

We need more sustainable renewable energy options such as solar and wind so that ecosystem health, local livelihoods, and economic development can all flourish. For example, hydropower dams always have environmental and social impacts, especially in tropical rivers. Recent studies have also shown that dams usually run massively over budget – by 96 percent on average – and take much longer to construct than originally scheduled: 44 percent longer on average. As the costs of wind and solar energy options have declined dramatically, Myanmar is able to meet a large proportion of its energy needs without compromising free-flowing rivers, and the communities, cities, river transport, biodiversity, and coastal protection services that rely on them.

We can no longer feign ignorance about the immense importance of large tropical rivers like the Ayeyarwady and Salween. It is of vital importance for Myanmar's people to keep these essential lifelines free-flowing. Government, communities, and the private sector must work together to safeguard the Ayeyarwady and Salween so we can look back without regret, knowing the steps taken today were the right ones – for the people of Myanmar now and for all future generations. – World Wide Fund for Nature-Myanmar

Christy Williams is the country director of WWF-Myanmar.

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