By Matthew Vergara
World Rivers Day is observed every September in celebration of earth’s waterways and in hopes of highlighting their value and raising awareness for the improved stewardship of rivers across the globe. In addition to being natural ecosystems for an array of species, rivers play an important role in providing us with irreplaceable services. But, as rivers are continuously being pushed to the limit by human activities it is vital that we transform the way we think and act if we are to preserve our rivers which are such a lifeline to us all.
A recent online talk entitled ‘Defining the New Normal: Focus on Resilient Waterways’ was held, featuring Dr Eva G. Abal of the International River Foundation based in Brisbane, Australia as the keynote speaker. Dr Abal stressed the importance of pushing for a paradigm shift in river management, from merely viewing our rivers as assets for services such as drainage, to a more outcome-based understanding whereby rivers become an integral part of our lifestyle. In essence, this will then encourage stakeholders to manage rivers from a strategic long-term approach instead of a reactive method of management which we still often see following major disturbances such as floods and water contamination.
The International River Foundation’s framework for sustainable river management revolves around the theme of River Resilience. Resilience has traditionally been considered to be the ability of a system to resist change. But the pace of change affecting waterways worldwide has been accelerating, Rivers face an almost constant regimen that has seriously undermined their capacity to bounce back from degradation and disturbances. The River Resilience approach encapsulates the capacity of a river system and its associated communities to quickly recover from disturbances, to adapt to changes without collapsing, and finally, to transform through innovation and implementation of resilience strategies.
About sixty years ago, the River Thames was declared biologically dead, but through the work of the Environment Agency and its predecessors and partners, the cleaner waters and improved habitats have encouraged the return of a whole range of wildlife. Today, the Yamuna River, a main tributary of the Ganges is fortunately undergoing a similar process of rehabilitation by stakeholders. The Yamuna’s problems are mainly the result of the rapid population growth and industrialization which India is experiencing. Through a successful shift in the way people view waterways, the Yamuna catchment area has seen more than fifty ‘Friends of the River’ groups establish themselves along its 1,400km stretch, along with extensive catchment restoration, river health monitoring, and the introduction of sustainable practices such as natural farming and proper waste management in the region. These are just two examples that show that building river resilience is an effective way forward.
Here in Malaysia, the conversation on river management remains an important one. Our rivers supply roughly 97% of the water needed for agricultural, industrial and domestic use. This is mainly due to the abundant rainfall which makes it easy for us to harvest surface water. Despite this reliance on healthy rivers and river basins, many rivers in Malaysia, especially those flowing through urban and industrial areas are far from healthy. Too often rivers are regarded as drains that are expected to magically transport pollutants and waste away from sight. But as we well know, solid waste collects in our lakes and coastline where it is a hazard to humans and nature alike. Pollutants rarely dissolve fully to the extent that they can be regarded as fully innocuous.
Stakeholders need to work toward managing and conserving the rivers we still have. Beyond being seen as a source of fresh water, and providing drainage and sewerage services, rivers need also to be appreciated holistically to include their ecological, social, and economic benefits.
Dr Abal elaborated on one such plan by the International River Foundation that could be applicable to Malaysia and many other regions. The Resilient Rivers Blueprint expands on the pre-existing concepts of Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM) and Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) by providing various tools that can be used by actors, from government bodies right down to local communities, to build and achieve river resilience in the local context.
If we can, as a society, begin to internalise this rethink, and the care and protection of our waterways is effectively upheld by all segments of society and environmental protection agencies, there may be cause to be hopeful that our rivers will continue to provide for and be enjoyed by future generations.
For more information on The Resilient Rivers Blueprint and what you can do to contribute to a growing platform of global information and resource for river resilience, visit resilientrivershub.com