Sustaining the world’s rivers

Across the world, people have seen their rivers deteriorate, becoming less reliable as a water supply, clogged with sediment, too contaminated to drink untreated, diminished in biodiversity or over-run by pests and weeds.

River and catchment protection is now seen in most countries as a fundamental component of integrated water and environmental management. Hundreds if not thousands of collaborative initiatives around the world are in the process of rescuing rivers and their associated lakes, wetlands and catchments.

The policy and management underpinning river restoration is complex.  Leading South African river scientist and commentator, Professor Kevin Rogers, wrote in 2006,
Rivers are, by their very nature, common property resources. As such, they present two fundamental challenges in management: how to regulate access to the resource, and how to institute rules among users to solve the potential divergence between individual and collective rationality about use of the resource.

Rogers went on to say that the key to producing broad societal responses to environmental problems ‘’lies in the processes used to develop a common understanding and collective decision-making in the redistribution of costs and benefits of resource use’’.

We need look no further than our own backyard in Australia to see such socio-political dynamics in river restoration.  Work on restoring the Murray-Darling River system has been on-going for more than two decades. Consumptive (surface) water use was capped in 1995, and strategies for managing water quality, fish, endangered species, riparian vegetation, in-stream habitat (to name but a few) have been enacted.  Whilst these programs were politically and socially difficult to implement in their time, they pale in comparison to the controversy and grief that has been caused by the recent attempts to reset the balance in water use between humans and the environment (through environmental water recovery initiatives such as Water for the Future, and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan).

Nevertheless, in Australia, as well as around the world, there have been some outstanding success stories resulting from integrated river restoration work. Since 1999, successful projects have been able to apply to win the prestigious Thiess International Riverprize, awarded by Australia’s International River Foundation (IRF) annually for river restoration.  There is also an Australian Riverprize, awarded since 2001.  Details can be seen at .

IRF CEO Matt Reddy has indentified hurdles that successful restoration projects have to leap including:

  • The need for long-term commitment:  It is unrealistic to expect major restoration outcomes in just a few years, when the damage has accumulated over decades or perhaps centuries.
  • Strong and influential leadership is essential, as is sufficient (often large) funding.
  • Acknowledging that individuals and local projects can be as helpful as large-scale institutional programs in achieving the objectives.
  • Adaptability, flexibility and, most of all, open and honest collaboration, are vital. Unusual partnerships across various sectors of society may be necessary, and may prove crucial to success.
  • Monitoring, recording and reporting data, assessment, and feedback along the way help refine the science and thinking behind the project. They also let the program team and stakeholders see what has been achieved, and learn from successes and mistakes.
  • Shared information is a keystone of the work: knowledge is power in these endeavours, and those who seek to hold it to themselves (often governments unfortunately) unbalance and unhinge the collaborative process.  With today’s internet resources, there is rarely a good excuse for not sharing data and information.
  • Celebration of involvement and progress is very important and can stimulate more partnerships, efforts and long-term participation.


The above is an edited extract from my recent article, released yesterday at


Rogers K.H. 2006: The real river management challenge: integrating scientists, stakeholders and service agencies. River Research & Applications 22:269-280.

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