Africa’s rivers need a New Deal to keep the continent’s Blue Heart pumping

By Dean Muruven, WWF Policy Manager, Freshwater

Victoria Falls, Zambia © Patrick Bentley / WWF-US

Coming up with a shortlist of the best places on earth to savour a sundowner would be a decidedly tricky task. But a fair few people would definitely vote for the banks of the Zambezi river just upstream from Victoria Falls — where you can sip an ice-cold beer while watching the sun set and marvelling at the billowing spray and endless thunder generated by one of the wonders of the world.

Needless to say it is also an inspiring place to sit down — as I did recently — with a group of incredible colleagues and discuss the future of Africa’s rivers: to analyse how best to keep them healthy and flowing for the benefit of all the people and nature that depend on them. It’s also an ideal spot because the Zambezi is not as healthy as it looks in the orange rays of the setting sun.

Its future — like those of many of Africa’s great rivers — is far from certain because the diverse benefits of healthy rivers continue to be undervalued and overlooked, despite the best efforts of my colleagues and many others across the continent.

Semliki River, Democratic Republic of Congo © Brent Stirton / Reportage for Getty Images / WWF

Working at WWF can be pretty special at times but this was definitely one of my best weeks. As a South African, I couldn’t help but beam with the pride as my colleagues stood up and recounted the amazing work they were doing on rivers and wetlands across Africa.

We were taken on a whirlwind tour of WWF’s freshwater work on the continent— from securing South Africa’s water source areas to campaigning to keep Zambia’s majestic Luangwa flowing, from improving the management of the Mara river in Kenya to safeguarding the waters of the Kavango Zambezi (KAZA) Transfrontier Conservation Area that spans five countries and hosts the largest elephant populations on earth, from collaborating to save the Zambezi delta to urging countries to choose sustainable renewable energy rather than destructive mega hydropower dams.

But the reality is that they are all facing an uphill battle because the world remains bizarrely blind to the ‘hidden’ benefits of healthy rivers — benefits that are not only essential for the environment but also underpin economies and societies. Healthy rivers support freshwater fish stocks that improve food security for hundreds of millions, deliver sediment that keeps deltas above rising seas, mitigate the impact of extreme floods and droughts, prevent loss of infrastructure and fields to erosion, and support a wealth of biodiversity. Sadly, these values are usually only acknowledged once they are lost.

Freshwater fish are critical to food security of tens of millions of people © Martin Harvey / WWF

Last month, the World Economic Forum released the 2019 iteration of its annual Risk Report, and once again, water crises feature in the top five global risks by impact facing our planet — for the ninth year in a row. Last year, we heard that the world was not on track to meet its commitments to water and sanitation for all under SDG6, while a landmark UN report warned that the world has at most 12 years to prevent climate catastrophe — a catastrophe that most of us will experience through water-related events, such as extreme floods, droughts, and storms.

On February 2nd, we marked World Wetlands Day with a Twitter-storm of amazing images and statistics about why wetlands matter and why we should protect them. But we’re not. The Global Wetland Outlook told us that we lost a staggering 35% of the world’s remaining wetlands from 1970–2015. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the importance of wetlands — from rivers to reefs, marshes to mangroves, lakes to lagoons — we continue to dam our rivers, drain our swamps and burn our peatlands, destroying biodiversity at unprecedented rates and undermining our hopes for a sustainable future.

On average, populations of freshwater species have declined by more than 80% in 50 years. What clearer sign could there be that we are wrecking our own life support systems?

Hippo in Mudumu National Park, Namibia © Will Burrard-Lucas / WWF-US

Something has to change. Which is why WWF is calling for an ambitious New Deal for Nature and People to be adopted by governments next year — a New Deal that reverses the trend of nature loss and recognizes the intrinsic link between the health of nature, the well-being of people and the future of our planet. Just as the world stepped up in Paris in 2015 to deliver the climate agreement, we need governments, businesses and society at large to support a New Deal for Nature and People in 2020.

This represents an unprecedented opportunity for us to bend the curve on freshwater biodiversity and spark greater efforts to protect and restore the world’s rivers and freshwater ecosystems.

Despite the recognition that water crises pose a major risk, the water community still lacks a global decision-making forum that focuses on managing and mitigating this risk. This may seem rather bizarre (and it is) but we no longer have enough time to create such a forum. Instead we must all work together to seize the unique opportunity that will come our way in 2020 — when world leaders will take key decisions on the future direction of the Paris climate change agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The decisions taken at these fora will set the agenda for the next decade. We need governments, businesses, financial institutions, civil society and everyone to commit to valuing rivers — otherwise we will not be able to halt, let alone reverse, the loss of nature and we will put our future at risk.

But we need more than commitments. We also need a new movement — united behind the New Deal. And youth need to be part and parcel of this movement, especially in Africa where 60% of the people are under the age of 25. Without a New Deal for Nature and People the youth of Africa may very well inherit a continent without its most iconic free flowing rivers and the biodiversity that relies on them.

But we can still safeguard the Blue Heart of Africa — the critical water source areas that supply so much of the continent. Africa and its presidents and CEOs have a unique opportunity to lead the call for a New Deal for Nature and People: one that incorporates the values of rivers, including the Congo, Mara and Zambezi, which have a central role to play in Africa’s future development trajectory.

As WWF’s Africa Director, Fred Kumah, wrote in the landmark Africa Watershed Moment report in 2017, “By 2050, Africa will be a very different continent. Its population will have doubled, soaring by another billion. Its towns and cities will house more people than its rural villages. Its economies will have transformed. The question is not where Africa is going: it is whether the continent gets there by following a sustainable and inclusive development path. And the answer will depend to a huge extent on how Africa manages its freshwater resources.”

And in particular, how it values its rivers.

In 2050, people will still be sipping beers besides the Zambezi. The question is whether it will still be a healthy river providing benefits to people and nature. Or whether it will have been dammed and drained and polluted as so many other rivers have been so that it provides little more than a backdrop for a photo.

Sun setting on Bwabwata National Park, Namibia © Will Burrard-Lucas / WWF-US