Global River Symposium Challenges Status Quo 

Climate change and the dramatic loss of aquatic biodiversity, 83% worldwide since 1970, were at the heart of conversations at the International River Symposium in Vienna this November where Friends’ executive director, Margaret Frisbie, presented on the vastly improved health of the Chicago River system and the important role community involvement played in its advancement. Delegates from around the world shared insights on river recovery, basin planning, cross jurisdictional approaches, and the imperative to improve public health at the same time we improve ecological health. The two are linked and inseparable.

“The symposium was exhilarating and sobering,” said Frisbie. “So many people are problem solving the same complex difficulties we face and challenging the status quo that rivers are a tool for transportation and commerce. Yet, many rivers are still under tremendous development pressure such as the Vjosa in Albania where the last free flowing river in Europe is threatened by hydropower, and the Mekong which is a recent victim of degradation. Quite unspoiled until the 1990s, after 30 years of abuse of the six countries the Mekong flows through, today only people in Cambodia can earn a living from fishing.”

The 25th annual symposium, hosted by the International RiverFoundation, was centered on the theme “Journey to Resilience: Communities, Climate, and Biodiversity” and the need to work together to achieve our goals. High on the agenda was adding rivers to the UN Sustainability Goals and COP27. Protections and climate conversation too often center only on terrestrial and ocean health, but rivers, the lifeblood of our nations, are left off the table. Rivers are complicated and difficult to address and their problems cannot be solved in short term timeframes, “but doing nothing is a disaster,” said a member of the Australian delegation and we agree.

The next symposium will be in Brisbane in 2023.