Reflections on Rivers

Rivers are the arteries of our planet. They have played an essential role in the development of humanity since the dawn of human history. Human settlements have, out of necessity, been built close to bodies of water, which is why many of the word’s cities are found on rivers. Cities are engines for economic growth, and rely heavily on the resources that rivers and their catchment areas provide, including as sources of water, food, transport and recreation; they have been used as defenses, as sources of power, and as a means of disposing of waste.

River basins and their cities face numerous challenges. Over 1.4 billion people currently live in river basins where the use of water exceeds minimum recharge levels, leading to the desiccation of rivers and depletion of groundwater. There is increasing demand and competition between multiple users, cities themselves but also industry, agriculture and the environment. The risks of increasingly frequent and extreme climate events, including floods and droughts, are growing due to land degradation, climate change and increased competition for water resources.

The challenges we face around the world to ensure the sustainability of our rivers and basins, and the continued health and wealth of our cities, was highlighted at two recent but very different events on improving the management of rivers.

The European River Symposium in Vienna focused on Partnerships for Rivers and Water, and targeted actions being taken to build positive relationships between key organisations and sectors that influence rivers and water management. Several of the participants arrived and left by river highlighting the multiple uses of rivers in our daily lives.

The Symposium which overlooked the Danube River brought together water utilities and basin organisations, an exciting development that reflects the IWA’s approach of linking stakeholders from catchment to tap. It provided an opportunity for the IWA’s Basins of the Future programme to promote its agenda for the sustainable management of basins and their water bodies, while addressing climate risks for urban and industrial areas through actions at the catchment level.

The second event was the Myanmar World Water Day Celebration in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw. Understanding the institutional landscape and engaging with Myanmar organisations was an opportunity to build relationships and to share knowledge and experience with water professionals in this emerging economy.

The aim was to increase Myanmar’s water sector efficiency in a way that would positively impact upon poverty alleviation and sustainable development, as well as to connect and cooperate with the international water community. A main focus was the Ayeyarwady River Basin, the largest basin in Myanmar and undergoing rapid development resulting from social and economic pressures. The success or failure of water management in the Ayeyarwady basin has profound implications for Myanmar’s future sustainable development. Ironically, Nay Pyi Taw is a recent construction, built in the last decade, and is not on a major river.

Both of these events brought together a variety of stakeholders from across basins. A noticeable gap, however, was the active link to cities and industrial value chains in catchment areas. It is critical for the water sector to better influence and activate stakeholders in urban areas; especially encouraging urban and industry leaders to connect with basin and catchment organisations, and other relevant stakeholders working on water management.

For example, utilities providing water to cities need to work hand-in-hand with the basin stakeholders to ensure water security. Beyond water security, the city relies on resource flows from its catchment area for food, energy and recreation. City leaders and water utility leaders have an enormous stake in ensuring the development of a healthy catchment.

Ensuring this multi-stakeholder approach goes beyond words and becomes reality is a primary focus for the IWA Basins of the Future programme. The upcoming IWA World Water Congress will host the first Basin Leaders Forum, providing an opportunity for basin organisations, catchment authorities, and water resource managers from sectors across river basins, such as mining, energy, industry, agriculture and cities, to share knowledge and explore viable pathways for the sustainable economic, social and environmental development of catchment areas.

The Forum will have the unique approach of convening multisector stakeholders at the catchment level, while also connecting with cities and industries. It will be a stepping-stone for the development of a “Charter for Sustainable Basin Management”, which will provide guidance to better manage water resources across scales especially for urban and industrial areas through actions at the catchment level.


Watch this space for further developments, or to find out more about the IWA’s Basins of the Future programme, contact Katharine Cross.

The IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition is the global event for water professionals. It offers new insights into how pioneering science, technological innovation and leading practices shape the major transformation in water management that is underway. It draws over 5,500 of the top water, environment and related professionals from more than 100 countries from across the water sector, including thought leaders from within and beyond the water sector.

Katharine Cross

Strategy and Partnerships Lead, Australian Water Partnership
Katharine has extensive experience in the water sector from global to local scale with a focus on climate resilience and adaptation, nature-based solutions, water-energy-food nexus,  water governance and the digitalisation of the water sector. She h... Read full biography