Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Life for Rivers

Rivers for Life is a very insightful book covering the need for global care of water and river systems for both people and nature. Written by Sandra Postel and Brian Richter (2003) from the Global Water Policy Project, Rivers of Life's first chapter is titled: Where Have All the Rivers Gone? It documents the impact wrought by human development through changing infrastructure (such as dams, hydro-projects, dredging etc.) on rivers, wetlands and other freshwater ecosystems, so much so that the health of the river and the plant and animal species that dwell in and along the river are threatened. The authors estimate that worldwide that 'a significant proportion of fresh water species ...including 20 percent of freshwater fish species ... are at risk of extinction or are already extinct.' (2003:3)

Healthy river systems are fast disappearing. But at the same time there is a host of activists, river and wetlands restorers who are working to re-create river health and wellbeing. Postel and Richter advise rivers should be valued for their own sake not only for the services they provide the human community. They comment: 'Rivers are more than conduits for water. They are complex systems that do complicated work.' (4)

What's needed for the restoration of river systems is all the scientific research that's being done as well as great encouragement for people to care for local waterways. One suggestion is to tell river stories from the present and the past, e.g. stories from indigenous communities and from the early days of white settlement when cotton growing, sugar cane farms and cattle stations spread out along the river. People may become more aware, more engaged and perhaps more motivated to take action to protect the river environs.

Talking to people I meet on the trail teaches me so much about the river and its history. We discuss the birds we've seen, the experiences of flood times, how tough it was for the early settlers in clearing the luscious rainforest for farmland and more generally, about the threat of encroaching development. And we work together to care for the precious bushland. Each day I pull up a number of noxious weeds but with the recent fantastic rain, the weeds are growing faster and taller than my ability to rip them up them; it seems impossible to combat their spread.

Postel and Richter are optimistic that people will learn to appreciate the natural environment including rivers and so might replicate the 'complicated work' that rivers do by lobbying for river education and river health. To this end the authors make a serious plea:

'Unless human communities begin to adapt to natural cycles and coexist with aquatic communities, those natural communities will disappear and the ecological work they perform will be lost.' (202).

They call for an ethic of stewardship which respects 'the beauty and mystery' of the natural world while at the same time demanding from governments a more aware, community-embedded active rivercare program.

One of the case sudies from Rivers of Life is the Brisbane River and its deteriorating health. Postel and Richter point to the extent of land clearing where now only 14 percent of the whole river catchment area where most people live 'remains uncleared' (133). They document a litany of river impacts that have severely affected the river flow, from construction of dams to changes in waterway vegetation which interferes with 'shading and temperature controls' raising the likelihood of 'algal blooms and lowering dissolved oxygen levels.' (135, citing Arthington et al, 2000).

The list of concerns continues with the loss of biodiversity and subsequent loss of habitat for bird, animal and fish species, including the platypus.

To combat these problems (or are they horrors?), a number of counter strategies are suggested. It requires concerted and combined action among all stakeholders and residents but of course, such suggestions to restore healthy river systems may (or invariably do) bring conflict, as ecological demands can disturb policy and development desires and outcomes. Postel and Richter (2003:137) write:

'This conflict between managing the Brisbane River for human purposes versus meeting the river's own needs for water is one that arises on virtually every river. ... Complete restoration of the Brisbane's natural flow regime would likely cause too much disruption to landowners and water users to be publicly acceptable.'

In the end such conflict is played out between humans and nature where nature's voice is rarely heard. At the moment the Butcher Bird is sitting on the verandah singing the most glorious chorus and sounding, on occasion, like the Magpie, the Kookaburra and of course, itself. I love that. The very melodic refrain of the Butcher Bird reminds me how important it is to value local river systems and trees and get involved in that complicated work of the ecosystem of which, we humans too, are part.

Arthington AH et al, 2000, Environmental Flow Requirements of the Brisbane River Downstream from Wivenhoe Dam, Brisbane, Queensland: South East Queensland Water Corporation, and Centre for Catchment and In-Stream Research of Griffith University.
Postel S and B Richter, 2003, Rivers For Life: Managing Water for People and Nature, Washington, DC: Island Press.