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Just One-Third of the World’s Longest Rivers Remain Free-Flowing

MD Staff

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Just over one-third (37%) of the world’s 246 longest rivers remain free-flowing, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Nature. Dams and reservoirs are drastically reducing the diverse benefits that healthy rivers provide to people and nature across the globe.

A team of 34 international researchers from McGill University, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and other institutions [1] assessed the connectivity status of 12 million kilometers (~7.5 million miles) of rivers worldwide, providing the first ever global assessment of the location and extent of the planet’s remaining free-flowing rivers. [2]

Among other findings, the researchers determined only 21 of the world’s 91 rivers longer than 1,000 km (~600 miles) that originally flowed to the ocean still retain a direct connection from source to sea. The planet’s remaining free-flowing rivers are largely restricted to remote regions of the Arctic, the Amazon Basin, and the Congo Basin.

“The world’s rivers form an intricate network with vital links to land, groundwater, and the atmosphere,’’ said lead author Günther Grill of McGill’s Department of Geography. ‘’Free-flowing rivers are important for humans and the environment alike, yet economic development around the world is making them increasingly rare. Using satellite imagery and other data, our study examines the extent of these rivers in more detail than ever before.”

Dams and reservoirs are the leading contributors to connectivity loss in global rivers. The study estimates there are around 60,000 large dams worldwide, and more than 3,700 hydropower dams are currently planned or under construction. They are often planned and built at the individual project level, making it difficult to assess their real impacts across an entire basin or region.

“Rivers are the lifeblood of our planet,” said Michele Thieme, lead freshwater scientist at WWF and global leader of WWF’s free-flowing rivers initiative. “They provide diverse benefits that are often overlooked and undervalued. This first-ever map of the world’s remaining free-flowing rivers will help decision makers prioritize and protect the full value rivers give to people and nature.”

Healthy rivers support freshwater fish stocks that improve food security for hundreds of millions of people, deliver sediment that keeps deltas above rising seas, mitigate the impact of extreme floods and droughts, prevent loss of infrastructure and fields to erosion, and support a wealth of biodiversity. Disrupting rivers’ connectivity often diminishes or even eliminates these critical ecosystem services.

Protecting remaining free-flowing rivers is also crucial to saving biodiversity in freshwater systems. Recent analysis of 16,704 populations of wildlife globally showed that populations of freshwater species experienced the most pronounced decline of all vertebrates over the past half-century, falling on average 83 percent since 1970.

The study also notes that climate change will further threaten the health of rivers worldwide. Rising temperatures are already impacting flow patterns, water quality, and biodiversity. Meanwhile, as countries around the world shift to low-carbon economies, hydropower planning and development is accelerating, adding urgency to the need to develop energy systems that minimize overall environmental and social impact.

“Renewable energy is like a recipe – you have to find the right mix of ingredients to have both a sustainable energy grid and a thriving natural world,” said Thieme. “While hydropower inevitably has a role to play in the renewable energy landscape, well-planned wind and solar energy can be more viable options for rivers and the communities, cities, and biodiversity that rely on them.”

The international community is committed to protect and restore rivers under Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, which requires countries to track the extent and condition of water-related ecosystems. This study delivers methods and data necessary for countries to maintain and restore free-flowing rivers around the world.

Visit freeflowingrivers.org for more information on free-flowing rivers and an interactive map of the world’s rivers.

[1] Contributing Institutions:

McGill University, WWF-US, WWF-NL, WWF-UK, WWF-Mediterranean, WWF-India, University of Basel, Joint Research Centre (JRC), WWF-China, WWF-Canada, WWF-Zambia, WWF Greater Mekong Programme, The Nature Conservancy, University of Nevada, WWF-Malaysia, IHE Delft, WWF- Germany and HTWG Konstanz, King’s College London, Umeå University, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, University of Washington, Harvard University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Conservation International , WWF-Mexico, WWF International, Stanford University, Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), Freie Universität Berlin, WWF-Brazil, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen.

[2]  First ever science-based definition of a free-flowing river:

Rivers where ecosystem functions and services are largely unaffected by changes to fluvial connectivity allowing an unobstructed exchange of water, material, species, and energy within the river system and with surrounding landscapes.

WWF

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Green Planet

Smart wastewater management can help reduce air pollution

MD Staff

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“Walk along the Bagmati river in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, and you are hit by a pervasive stench, underlining the fact that poor wastewater management worsens air pollution,” says Birguy Lamizana, a UN Environment specialist on wastewater and pollution.

“The other thing you notice is that it’s the poorest of the poor living along the banks of the river in makeshift shacks: the world over it’s usually the poorest people who are worst affected by pollution,”  she adds.

Kathmandu is not an isolated example of poor wastewater management. All big cities, especially those in developing countries with rapidly expanding populations, face similar problems.

Heavily polluted urban waterways emit toxic gases such as methane and nitrous oxide which are also greenhouse gases, and a recent global study found that concentrations of antibiotics in some of the world’s rivers exceed safe levels by up to 300 times.

No one wants pollution and there is growing awareness about the danger it poses. In September 2017, Member States of the United Nations adopted the report Towards a pollution-free planet.

“While the world has achieved significant economic growth over the past few decades, it has been accompanied by large amounts of pollution, with significant impacts on human health and ecosystems and the ways in which some of the major earth system processes, such as the climate, are functioning,” it says.

For example, 3.5 billion people depend on oceans as a source of food, yet oceans are used as waste and wastewater dumps.

On land, water laden with toxic chemicals from industry pollutes waterways but also the air we breathe. Likewise, fertilizers used in agriculture cause nutrient pollution in the form of run-off into rivers, lakes and wetlands. These ecosystems become polluted in the process, and cause air pollution. One of the consequences of nutrient pollution is algal blooms which suffocate fish and emit noxious gases. Furthermore, intensive livestock production produces high levels of methane. Chemicals used in mining also pollute water sources and the air. As land and ocean are interconnected, these pollutants, in one way or another, will reach groundwater, as well as the coast and the ocean.

“Unsustainable human activities, from farming and mining to industry and infrastructure, are undermining the productivity of vast areas of farmland, forests and other ecosystems across all continents. This degradation threatens food security, water supplies and the biodiversity upon which human development depends. It drives and is exacerbated by climate change. And it will put the Sustainable Development Goals out of reach unless it is urgently addressed,” says the UN Environment Programme policy brief A new deal for Nature – Restore the Degraded Planet.

The fourth United Nations Environment Assembly in March 2019 passed a resolution agreeing to “enhance the mainstreaming of the protection of coastal and marine ecosystems in policies, particularly those addressing environmental threats caused by increased nutrients, wastewater, marine litter and microplastics, in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development…”

High dependence on a limited resource

Humans are critically dependent on clean freshwater for drinking, cooking and for use in agriculture and industry. Only about 2.5 per cent of all the water on Earth is freshwater. And of this freshwater only about 1.2 per cent is readily available as surface freshwater—the rest is groundwater or locked up in glaciers and ice caps. So, when surface freshwater gets polluted we’re in trouble.

Even when groundwater gets polluted, we are also in trouble, as many countries use groundwater for irrigation. And yet, over 80 per cent of the world’s wastewater is released to the environment without treatment.

Wastewater treatment benefits the poor

“There are many measures that can be taken to address pollution,” says Lamizana. “The objective is to select the key measures that can bring most benefits across pollution dimensions (i.e. air, water, soil/land, marine and coastal) and across sectors (e.g. agriculture/food security, industry, transportation, residential, extractive), using a life-cycle approach.”

UN Environment and partners are helping countries identify a manageable number of cost-effective measures to reduce wastewater pollution and make a better case for their adoption and enforcement. But reliable, consistent and trustworthy data sources are needed.

“We need more and better-quality data to assess the status and impact of wastewater pollution, and capacity-building support needs to be provided to countries to improve their ability to develop national statistical systems and use pollution-related statistics to better manage and monitor their water, soil and air quality,” says Lamizana.

“Open source maps using geo-spatial data showing maps of pollution, dynamics of dispersion, combined with population density, protected areas or other bio-physical or socio-economic datasets are urgently needed,” she adds.

In this connection, the 2019 United Nations Environment Assembly passed a resolution encouraging Member States “to collect data on economic indicators and those linked to poverty and the environment to enable the tracking of progress towards the eradication of poverty and the management of natural resources and the environment.”

UN Environment

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Green Planet

Carbon market negotiations under the Paris Agreement

Luca Lo Re

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Climate negotiators gathered in Bonn, Germany, in recent weeks for talks aimed at making progress ahead of the COP25 meeting in Santiago, Chile, in December. (Photograph: UNFCCC)

The world’s climate negotiators recently concluded two weeks of discussions about the next steps for the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, with carbon market rules high on the agenda.

The annual mid-year climate negotiations are generally held ahead of the annual Conference of the Parties (COP), the top decision-making body for climate negotiations.

The recent COP24, in Katowice, Poland, was heralded by many as a success in multilateralism and diplomacy. It adopted an almost complete set of rules and guidelines supporting implementation of the Paris Agreement. However, the parties did not ultimately reach a consensus on one specific area: the rules for using carbon markets.

These rules are known in the climate jargon as the “Article 6 rules”, after the Paris Agreement article that mandates them. After the inconclusive talks at COP24, negotiators were tasked to come up with a new proposal for the Article 6 rules that could be adopted at the next COP25, in Santiago, Chile, later this year.

At the recent meeting in Bonn, which concluded last week, countries made good progress on technical discussions and came up with a new negotiating text. But disagreements remain about the status of the text and how to take it forwards. This means that there is everything to play for as we move towards COP25.

Here are some key points for understanding why carbon markets matter so much under the Paris Agreement and what the bottlenecks are in the negotiations.

What is Article 6 of the Paris Agreement?

Carbon markets are aimed at lowering the cost of reducing greenhouse gases emissions. Expanding and linking those markets internationally can help further drive down the cost of achieving emission reduction targets, helping to stimulate the needed investments for clean energy transitions.

By agreeing to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, countries opened the way for a new form of international interaction on carbon markets. Article 6 builds on a long history of market approaches under the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement’s predecessor.

Article 6 is intended to support countries in enhancing the ambitions of their stated climate actions, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which collectively contribute to the overarching goal of the Paris Agreement: keeping the rise in global average temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, the nature of carbon markets means that robust rules are important to ensure that environmental and sustainable development gains are realised. Article 6 introduces two voluntary market-based paths for international co-operation.

Article 6.2 sets out the principles for voluntary co-operative approaches. One country can transfer so-called “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” (ITMOs) to another country, which can then use them towards its NDC target. These transfers must apply robust and transparent accounting rules to avoid double counting of ITMOs and to ensure environmental integrity. The transfers can take place using various approaches and mechanisms, such as bilateral cooperation programmes between countries, or national or regional emission trading schemes (ETS).

Article 6.4 establishes a mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development, under the oversight of a central UN governance body. Public and private entities can participate in this mechanism if authorised by a country. While the main intention is that emissions reductions from the mechanism will count towards achievement of countries’ NDCs, the mechanism could also be used in other ways. For example, airlines could use credits from the mechanism to comply with the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Other companies could use them to count towards carbon neutrality. However, double counting of these emission reductions must be avoided.

Despite the lack of a formal outcome on Article 6 at the recent negotiations in Bonn, countries made substantial progress and had constructive discussions. Differences remain on several issues ahead of COP25, though. For instance, countries have not yet agreed on an accounting system to avoid double counting and other elements needed to prevent potential environmental integrity risks.

How is the IEA contributing?

The IEA is contributing to the discussions on Article 6 – as well as to the negotiations more broadly – through technical analysis by the joint OECD-IEA Climate Change Expert Group (CCXG). For more than 25 years, the CCXG has been developing and publishing technical papers in consultation with a wide range of countries to inform ongoing climate negotiations.

Through the CCXG, the IEA recently co-published a technical paper that analyses two specific unresolved issues in the negotiations of rules for Article 6 of the Paris Agreement: the accounting system of Article 6.2, and the implications of a potential transition of Kyoto Protocol mechanisms to the Article 6.4 mechanism. The outcomes of the paper were presented at a side event during the Bonn conference and directly informed the negotiations.

The CCXG also convenes two major events per year to promote dialogue among government delegates and experts from developed and developing economies, outside of the formal negotiations. Discussions stretch well beyond carbon markets, also covering the transparency framework of the Paris Agreement and climate finance issues, among others. The next edition of these invitation-only Global Forums on the Environment and Climate Change will be held at the IEA headquarters in Paris on 1-2 October. In addition, the IEA is ramping up its efforts to support countries in implementing and enhancing their NDCs.

IEA

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Green Planet

Does economic growth worth degrading the environment?

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Although environmental consequences of economic growth bring about numerous reactions of economists and environmentalists, there is still doubt that environment protection rules and regulations hinder economic growth, or future development has dire consequences on the environment which does not worth it.

Here the question arises that whether eliminating natural resources must continue to make up for the slow economic growth or come up with more practicable solutions to safeguard non-renewable resources.

Many cases in Iran and other countries demonstrate the direct relation between socio-economic development and environmental degradation, showing that human are using natural resources at a pace much faster than it can replenish.

For instance, deforestation is the permanent destruction of forests in order to make the land available for other uses. An estimated 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) of forest, which is roughly the size of the country of Panama, are lost each year, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Reza Bayani, an official with Forests, Range and Watershed Management Organization said in April that approximately 12,000 hectares of forests across Iran is wiped out annually.

Bayani referring to illegal logging as the leading cause of forest degradation, noted that timber smuggling steadily proceeding in the forests poses a serious threat to the country’s ecology for a minor population benefits.

Yousefali Ebrahimpour, commander of the protection unit of natural resources and watershed management department of West Azarbaijan province said in February that over 450 tons of smuggled log has been seized in the forests in the province, which were being smuggled to the northern provinces of the country.

While the following year flash floods in 31 provinces of the country started on March 19, caused great losses and damages which was due to deforestation and vegetation depletion in addition to building encroaching river beds.

Seyed Mohammad Mojabi, head of environment committee of the Expediency Council, said in May that following recurrent droughts and low precipitation, related organizations believed that severe rainfalls seem far-fetched in a country with arid and semi-arid climate and decided to allow construction projects through river banks, which increased flood devastation.

Road construction also is another way of development which is at loggerheads with nature, mainly resulting in many irreparable damages including road surface erosion and sediment yield, slope failures and mass movement, direct loss of habitat (by the conversion of the original land cover into an artificial surface) and indirect loss of habitat (by the fragmentation of an ecosystem into smaller and more isolated patches).

The chief of Mazandaran provincial department of environment Ebrahim Fallahi said in September 2018 that long stretches of roads are under construction in Savadkuh forest.

Moreover, excessive groundwater withdrawal, dam construction, water transfer projects, land use changes and wildfires are also the fallouts of unplanned industrial expansion which bring environmental damages, and if thinking deeply it can be realized that they can also cause immeasurable financial losses in the long run.

Mohammad Reza Goldansaz, a researcher in the field of water resources stated in June that an annual amount of 50 billion cubic meters of groundwater resources are withdrawn to supply agricultural, industrial as well as drinking water in Iran.

How growth even affects air we breathe?

When it comes to air pollution the situation even gets more complex, as car manufacturing companies produce more cars without scrapping emitting clunker ones for generating profit and responsible devices not improving fuel quality, in addition to not preparing proper plan to curb the emissions.

Deputy interior minister for urban and rural development, Mehdi Jamalinejad, has said that some 22,000 busses are operating in the country’s public transport fleet, 16,000 of which are clunkers, accounting for 70 percent of the volume of bus transport system.

Ali Mohammadi, an official with traffic police, said in January that the scrappage of clunker vehicles has decreased by 65 percent in the past Iranian calendar year 1397 (ended in March 2019) compared to a year earlier.

While last year some 140,000 vehicles were scrapped, this year only 50,000 old vehicles were discarded, he added.

Environment should not be destroyed for sake of growth

MP Homayoun Yousefi has said that economic growth is not worth of environmental degradation.

He lamented that environmental protection has decreased in Western Asia, which is mostly due to decision making is based on personal tastes not environmental assessment.

“Iran’s climate being arid is fragile, so development should be done in light of the fragility and low capacity of the country’s environment,” he highlighted, regretting, nature seems to be less considered in some development plans.

“An important factor for showing power of countries is sustainable environment, and we also need to focus more on the environment in this regard,” he added.

Toward economic growth while safeguarding environment

Green production is likely to become the center of attention globally in the near future due to the proven importance of environment, however, economic and industrial expansion resulting in urbanization are a reality that is inevitable specially in developing countries, so, we must never lose sight of the need to safeguard the environment.

Every country regarding the resources each have, has an important opportunity to make policies or take steps in line with regulations which can guide it to developmental goals. By considering environmental issues and planning for appropriate confrontation measures wherever necessary, we can even set a role model for other countries to follow.

From our partner Tehran Times

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