Monday, April 22, 2024

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To give rivers their rights – let's first undo our wrongs : International Day of Action for Rivers

This Sunday March 14th, will be marked as the international day of action for rivers. This years theme is “rights of rivers”. Yes, rivers have rights per se. Just you and I have rights to life, clean and healthy environment, right to education, right to justice and so on, so do rivers. There is a common saying that goes, “your rights end where mine begin”. If rivers could speak, how many of their rights would they spew out as having been infringed upon? Many, that cannot be simply washed off—no pun intended. But first, a brief history of the international day of action for rivers. 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If one were standing above Ngong river pictured above, one would be forgiven for assuming this is a misdirected sewage flow. It is for this and many other reasons that drastic action is needed to save our rivers, and urgently. 

This Sunday March 14th, will be marked as the international day of action for rivers. This years theme is “rights of rivers”. Yes, rivers have rights per se. Just you and I have rights to life, clean and healthy environment, right to education, right to justice and so on, so do rivers. There is a common saying that goes, “your rights end where mine begin”. If rivers could speak, how many of their rights would they spew out as having been infringed upon? Many, that cannot be simply washed off—no pun intended. But first, a brief history of the international day of action for rivers. 

The international day of action for rivers was first adopted by the participants of the first international meeting of people affected by dams in March 1997 at Curibita, Brazil. Representatives from 20 countries decided to coincide it with March 14th, Brazil’s day of action against large dams. The international day of rivers was created to celebrate rivers and those who protect them. Apart from creating awareness, it is a day that people demand for better policies to protect our rivers, which are the arteries of our planet. This day has a twin, the World Rivers Day celebrated—universally held on the fourth Sunday of September every year. This day in the latter part of the year celebrates the world’s waterways, their contribution to the planet and promote better stewardship of their resources.  

In keeping with the theme of “Rights of Rivers”, in what ways are rivers being abused? Rivers have been the dumping ground of many human ills. From the slum to the metropolis, rivers have borne the brunt of plastic pollution, effluent release, mixing detergents, dumping of garbage, river diversion, and riverine agriculture to name just a few. It seems that we go against the grain, yet we expect the best from our rivers. Africa has three of its rivers—namely the Nile, Congo and Niger in the top 15 list of longest rivers worldwide. Yet, despite their significance of providing water to their vast drainage basins, some of them are being inherently abused. For example, the Congo basin is a vast territory of more than 3.4 million kilometres (larger than India) yet deforestation in this basin poses a threat to the water volumes of the Congo river. Oil spills on the Niger delta, one of the world largest wetlands, have made the River Nigeria unhabitable for aquatic and wetland plant species. Niger Delta is considered one of the most polluted places on Earth, a stark contradiction for a country that is the continent’s lead petroleum exporter and the second largest economy after South Africa.   

African rivers have been victims of both household and industrial pollution, over abstraction and sedimentation from agricultural yields. These actions have serious implications for those who depend on them, the ecosystem and even the political leadership. For example, many rivers flowing across urban areas have chemical concentrations tens of times above acceptable standards yet they are the only water source for many impoverished households. Apart from productive hours lost to poor health and increasing government expenditure on health care, they also negatively affect the ecosystems downstream.   

Because rivers are important for agricultural, domestic and industrial use, why are they so mistreated? It could be due to ignorance, blatant disregard of the law, lack of enforcement, impunity, apathy, a dumping culture and the like. It is time we change this narrative by diving into the river with both feet and enforcing the proper culture of resource management, rather than that of disposal. Conservation actions for our rivers can be done by establishing river committees responsible for their wellbeing. River committees are local water management structures that are responsible for allocating and solving water conflicts along a single river. Sometimes they assist in the proper management of a rivers resources. A good example of a local river committee is the Ngarenaro Committee, one of the three committees responsible for the upper catchment of Pangani river, Tanzania. The committee continuously monitors river water levels to ensure sharing of scarce water resources does not escalate to conflicts especially during drought. In Kenya, 23 Water Resource User Associations (WRUAs) provide oversight in the use of the Mara River. Problems the WRUAs are responsible for include preventing over abstraction, preventing soil erosion upstream and resolving conflicts downstream. To exemplify the power of WRUs, one WRU in the Mara river basin with the help of authorities managed to stop a hotel from further disposal of effluent to the Mara river.  

Within countries, there are sub-national water management boards responsible for entire watersheds. However, their monitoring of rivers may not be effective in the absence of local river committees. It is for this reason that conservation of our rivers should be the responsibility of everyone along its reach. With 75% of Africa’s surface water concentrated in just eight river basins, conservation of all our waterways is more important than ever to prevent their disappearance in a warming 21st Century 

The conservation of our waterways will also bring a co-benefit to the lakes—sustainable water supplies and aquatic populations. To demonstrate the importance of a continuous, steady water supply by rivers to a lake, the Aral Sea serves as the best example. Rivers of the Aral Sea basin were diverted to irrigate cotton farms during the Soviet era. The sea shrank to less than a quarter of its original size recorded in the 1960s, and so did the fish population plummet downwards. Closer home, Lake Victoria is a water bowl supplied by more than six rivers on the Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian sides. Lack of conservation of the river networks draining to Lake Victoria might not only cause a decline in water volumes, but also cause disastrous socioeconomic and ecologic repurcussions on either side of the lake edge. History should not repeat itself on our own soil. 

Rivers also contribute to the overall climate of the planet. If a cataclysmic event took place and blocked the drainage of the water sources to Lake Victoria, resulting in shrinkage of the lake’s area and water volume, the mesoscale meteorology of the area would also be altered. This is because the proximity of the large water mass and the temperature difference between land and lake create perfect pressure and thermal conditions for the development of convective storms. This explains why the lake region experiences more annual precipitation than other lowland parts of East Africa. Therefore, a constant river supply is crucial for both the climate and economy of the region’s inhabitants.  

With all said and done, the International day of Action for Rivers brings the global audience to their feet in minding the state of their rivers. Here in Africa atrocities have been done to our rivers yet many still remain undocumented. The socio-economic conditions and negative water balance of several African states posits the continent as the most vulnerable to climate change. With all these grim statistics, should we create a day specifically for Action on Africa’s rivers, just to take action into our own hands?