Pipedreams: River basin transfers threaten world’s most vital resource

Posted on 27 June 2007
Aerial view of a canalised section of the São João River. Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil
© WWF / Edward PARKER
Gland, Switzerland – Massive engineering schemes to divert and even reverse the flow of rivers undermine entire ecosystems and can damage the livelihoods of the very poor, says WWF in a new report.

The report —  Pipedreams? Interbasin transfers and water shortages — shows that water transfers between rivers are inevitably costly schemes that damage the natural environment, interrupting flows between rivers and compromising their ability to provide food and water.

Along with dams and other highly technical approaches to make up for water shortages, transfer schemes entail elaborate systems of canals, pipes and dredging over long distances. Already less than 40 per cent of the world’s rivers over 1,000km long remain free-flowing and this fact along with the water crisis is no mere coincidence.

“An overemphasis on engineering to address growing water needs is an artificial way to fix the water crisis,” says Jamie Pittock, Director of WWF’s Global Freshwater Programme.

“More lasting, is a commitment to healthy rivers and wetlands as the first step to water conservation, complemented by other methods as sustainable as possible and only if necessary.”

The report explores schemes completed in Australia, South Africa and Spain and others proposed in Brazil, China, Greece and Peru. It is worth noting that hundreds more exist including some that are not publicly known because of their often controversial nature.

Almost all cases share common flaws: cost overruns, insufficient transparency, irreversible damage to rivers, lack of stakeholder consultation, displacement of communities, planned benefits falling short, and a lack of exploration of alternative sustainable options.

“In many cases, water transfer schemes are a ‘pipedream’, reflecting simplistic thinking that transferring water between rivers will solve the problem without bringing new ones,” adds Pittock.

"The solutions to the water crisis must be rooted in conserving wetlands while properly assessing and managing local demands for water.”

“We must also use traditional local water management methods where suitable and recycle waste water," he stresses. "Basin transfers must be the last resort after all other sustainable approaches have been explored.”

For further information:
Lisa Hadeed, Communications Manager
WWF Global Freshwater Programme
Tel: +41 22 364 9030
E-mail: lhadeed@wwfint.org

Moira O’Brien-Malone, Head of Press
WWF International
Tel: +41 22 364 9550
E-mail: mobrien@wwfint.org
Aerial view of a canalised section of the São João River. Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil
© WWF / Edward PARKER Enlarge