Traditionally, rivers have been valued primarily as water sources to drive the economic engines of irrigation and hydropower. However, rivers provide a broader set of services that deliver immense benefits to people, economies and nature, which include, but exceed, the value of the water they carry. But far too often, these benefits are not understood, recognized or valued and so are not a priority for river management – until clear problems emerge from their neglect.
To catalyze changes in policy and management, the value of rivers needs to be framed in terms that are compelling for those making decisions. ‘Hidden’ values can receive higher priority when they transcend environmental and social values and are translated into financial or economic values for key government agencies or influential private sector leaders. Doing so will require a new framework for how rivers are valued and managed. This report adapts a recent framework for sustainable water management (Garrick et al. 2017), which describes the main components necessary for a new approach, including:
- Measure: Water resources generally, and rivers’ benefits specifically, are often poorly monitored and measured. Sustainable river management requires greatly improved measurement of benefits, based on a rigorous understanding of key river processes and relationships. The so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ offers a number of promising pathways to improve how we measure water and river systems.
- Value: Various methods have been developed, or are emerging, to improve the valuation of water and rivers’ services, including rapid progress in quantifying ecosystem services. However, improved valuation methods will not have major impacts on policy and management unless this information is delivered to the necessary audiences in a format that they find compelling.
- Understand tradeoffs: Even with improved measurement and valuation of resources, decision making about river management will require navigating difficult tradeoffs. Decision science has recently produced new approaches to integrate a more diverse set of values into planning, management and policy decisions, illustrated by how tradeoff analysis can improve the sustainability of the hydropower sector .
- Improve governance: Implementing decisions and ensuring that progress is durable requires effective water-management institutions and governance, with roles for government (allocation policies), financial institutions (driving sustainable investment through bankable water solutions) and the private sector (context-based water targets).
The framework in this report can help communities, river managers and decision makers in both the public and private sectors develop a better grasp of the diverse values that rivers provide and the need to collaborate to protect them.