Rivers are invaluable to South East Asia

How many different ways can you measure a river? By its length and how many countries it passes through? The volume of water flowing along its course? The number of species it supports?

Perhaps the most important – and largely overlooked – measure of a river is its value to the economy and wellbeing of a nation, a region, and its people. Simply put, large healthy, productive rivers like the Mekong and Ayeyarwady are unifying geographic features that serve as economic juggernauts, essential to long term growth and in maintaining the quality of life for millions of people.

We must view rivers through the lens of sustainability and approach sensible river stewardship as a way to ensure their diverse values persist. A degraded river will impede economic growth, while investing in protecting river ecosystems will make business more sustainable and more profitable.

Still waters run deep

Looking at the muddy waters of the Mekong and Ayeyarwady, it’s easy to miss what is happening below the surface.

Dolphin communities in both rivers are crucial for tourism, enhancing economic development in local communities and opening up new opportunities for small enterprises. This may appear as a relatively small sector today, but the potential for growth can be seen in similar natural capital assets in developing countries. Managing rivers for their many benefits today will ensure an array of economic benefits over the long term.

Similarly, fish are one of the most important resources provided by the region’s rivers. Wild fisheries allow the consumption of a reliable source of protein while keeping the water intact for other uses. If wild fisheries are lost due to degraded habitat, communities will have to supplement protein by increasing their reliance on other means such as cattle farming or soya agriculture – which compete with other land uses, result in forest conversion and use large amounts of water.

Damage from floods can be costly to society and disruptive to businesses, but floods also have significant benefits.

They move nutrients back into fields, revitalising them and increasing soil fertility. They act as a natural pesticide by flushing through agricultural land, and they play an essential role in shaping and maintaining the riverbed. These benefits are valued annually at US$8 billion (K10.8 trillion) to $10 billion, while floods in the Lower Mekong basin cause a much lower $60 million to $70 million in damage every year.

Another natural process that is under attack is the movement of sediment such as sand and silt as water flows along a river. Just like the foundations of a building, a stable river-bed is critical to a stable river. But unsustainable hydropower and accelerating sand mining in the region’s rivers are causing erosion and river bank collapse at an unprecedented rate. Repairing the damage by building dikes and fixing roads, bridges and property costs billions of dollars, so why not avoid it in the first place?

Costly restoration

Floods and sediment are the artisans of river systems. If you lose them you are left to human-engineered solutions.

That is now the only option for the US government in the Mississippi River. A $50-billion programme has just been launched to rehabilitate the Mississippi delta. Conserving the natural processes that created it in the first place would have been a much more cost efficient option.

A recent study from WWF and partners showed that while the devastation from Myanmar’s Cyclone Nargis in 2008 was massive, it would have been far worse without the protective sand dunes in the Ayeyarwady delta. These natural barriers played a major role in protecting millions of Myanmar’s people, along with agricultural land and fisheries, from further devastation. Within a year the coastline recovered naturally and was ready to play its protective role again.

That’s the good news. However, since the typhoon, the Ayeyarwady Delta is showing clear signs of stress, and its capacity to protect the people and livelihoods of the region is diminishing. So the question is: What is the real socio-economic cost of losing this natural defence and how much will it cost Myanmar to substitute it?

These are just a few examples of the benefits of rivers, and more are being discovered as we explore the complex links between rivers and the economy, with implications for investment, wages and reputation of national brands.

Those are to be considered in relation to growing threats from poorly sited hydropower projects and excesses in channel sand mining. It’s clear that the countries of the Greater Mekong region will not be able to maintain their current 5-8 percent growth rate and achieve their sustainable development goals if they do not address these threats.

Good business sense

Good river stewardship makes good business and social sense. And it shouldn’t be left as the sole responsibility of under-funded water resource and environmental agencies. That’s the message being delivered this week in Yangon as hundreds of delegates gather at the Greater Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy. The stakes are high, and the value of rivers should be recognised by economic planning agencies. Similarly, the private sector and especially investors should be much more engaged in water governance. It is clearly in their interest to maintain the Mekong, Ayeyarwady and all other rivers in good health.

Similarly, businesses across the region should better evaluate their water-related risks, both internally and within their supply chains – and then adopt production methods that reduce those risks. WWF and partners have developed an innovative Water Risk Filter that can help them do just that.

So how does one measure a river? They are an irreplaceable, priceless asset, and it is our responsibility to manage them well, or both nature and people will lose their incomparable benefits.

Marc Goichot is lead of the WWF-Greater Mekong’s regional water initiative.

Source: Myanmar Times

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