The first time you raft down a river, it’s like being let in on a secret world that nobody else seems to know about.
Life is totally different on a river. You drop your boat in, and the current just takes you. Sometimes you struggle to keep yourself upright. Heck, sometimes you struggle to make it off of the river in one piece.
But when you’re on the river, you know that you’re truly alive, and that you’ve tapped into something elemental. That’s why so many of us come back to rivers every season – why we seek out the craziest rapids, and why we travel the world to discover new ones.
It’s a thrill. But rivers also allow us to experience time differently. Time is slower on a river, and we see the world through a new lens. On some rivers, we see remote and beautiful locations we’d never see otherwise. On others, we see local people living in tandem with their rivers, relying on them every day in a way that we might even envy.
Rafters know what it is to love a river.
Unfortunately, the world’s rivers are under threat. We’re currently facing an unprecedented dam-building boom that threatens to choke our last free-flowing rivers. Over 50,000 large dams already clog major arteries around the world, and as we write, 3,700 new dams are planned or under construction.
To some, hydroelectric dams can seem like a great idea – why not harness all that power to create clean energy and control floods at the same time?
But the reality is not that simple. For the past 60 years, large dams have had devastating impacts on people and the environment. They’ve displaced tens of millions of people, inundated prime agricultural land and decimated fish runs. In fact, the world has lost 80% of its freshwater populations just since 1970 – in large part because of dams.
And these expensive, disruptive projects don’t even deliver clean energy. Recent studies have shown that dams contribute 1.4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – their reservoirs create methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases. If we build more, we’ll only make climate change worse.
The good news is that there are solutions. Dedicated groups and individuals are fighting for their rivers around the globe, and they’ve won many battles. And now, there’s a growing global movement advocating for permanent legal protection for rivers.
Why permanent protection? The simple fact is that when many people fight a bad project and win, they think the fight is over. But then, a few years later, the project pops up under a new name, or on a slightly different part of the river. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole: Without laws permanently protecting rivers, river defenders will always be fighting the same battles.
Rivers play an essential role in fisheries, agriculture, flood protection, drought protection and our freshwater supply. They are hotspots of biodiversity, and they form a key part of the identity of many people around the world. But those aren’t the only reasons we love them. We love them because they are beautiful and unpredictable, and because rafting down them gives us joy. And joy and beauty are essential to our well-being.
As a community that reveres rivers, we must step up, pay attention and start to advocate for permanent protection of our rivers.