How do healthy rivers benefit society?

Working and discussion papers
February 2016
Helen Parker and Naomi Oates
A fisherman prepares for the evening catch, near Gisenyi, Rwanda © Helen Parker / ODI
Rivers are essential to human well-being. However, many rivers around the world are severely degraded or at risk, which undermines their ability to provide critical ecosystem services and related benefits. Furthermore, despite their potential, rivers are often exploited to deliver a relatively narrow range of objectives, to the detriment of river health as well as other human needs. In an effort to better engage decision-makers in river conservation and restoration, this working paper provides a synthesis of existing evidence regarding the relationship between river health and the benefits for society, and presents a conceptual framework to explain the links between rivers and social, economic and strategic benefits.

We find that sustainable management of river ecosystems requires a stronger inter-disciplinary approach, and reclaiming the ‘water sector’ from the margins to the centre of policy-making. The costs of river development need to be better accounted for in planning processes, as well as an explicit consideration of who wins and who loses, and how to compensate the latter. Finally, a widespread shift in thinking is needed so that ecosystems are not viewed as consumers of water, but rather an essential component of water security.

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