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'Incorporate hidden values in river management policies'

New Delhi : Nearly a quarter of gross domestic product (GDP) in Asia and a fifth of the GDP in Africa lies within watersheds with high to very high water risk. Overall, 19 per cent of global GDP currently comes from watersheds with high to very high water risk, a new report by international NGO WWF has said.

The report - 'Valuing Rivers - How The Diverse Benefits Of Healthy Rivers Underpin Economies' - looked at a measurement of water risk that incorporates a range of values supported by rivers.

Traditionally, rivers have been valued primarily as water sources to drive the economic engines of irrigation and hydropower. However, rivers provide a broader set of services that deliver immense benefits to people, economies and nature, which include, but exceed, the value of the water they carry.

But far too often, these benefits are not understood, recognized or valued and so are not a priority for river management – until clear problems emerge from their neglect.

Faced with rapid development, climate change and a world of increasing water risk, understanding these diverse values from rivers and then devising policies and practices to safeguard them is a formidable challenge, the report states.

The WWF maintained that to catalyze changes in policy and management, the value of rivers needs to be framed in terms that are compelling for those making decisions. “Hidden” values can receive higher priority when they transcend environmental and social values and are translated into financial or economic values for key government agencies or influential private sector leaders.

The report adapts a recent framework for sustainable water management, which describes the main components necessary for a new approach, including:

Measure: Sustainable river management requires greatly improved measurement of benefits, based on a rigorous understanding of key river processes and relationships.

Value: Improved valuation methods exist but they will not have major impacts on policy and management unless this information is delivered to the necessary audiences in a format that they find compelling

Understand tradeoffs: Even with improved measurement and valuation of resources, decision making about river management will require navigating difficult tradeoffs.

Improve governance: Implementing decisions and ensuring that progress is durable requires effective water-management institutions and governance, with roles for government (allocation policies), financial institutions (driving sustainable investment through bankable water solutions) and the private sector (context-based water targets).

The WWF said there was "an urgent need to stop regarding rivers as simply conduits for moving water and re-evaluate all the benefits of the rivers that flow through our communities, cities and countries. The growing economic profile of water creates a generational

opportunity to do exactly this and to reconnect people with rivers – before more of their ‘hidden’ benefits are lost or degraded".

The framework in the report is intended to help communities, river managers and decision makers in both the public and private sectors develop a better grasp of the diverse values that rivers provide and the highlights the need to collaborate to protect them.

The report states that rivers are central to most nations’ histories and cultures, weaving their way through songs, stories and myths. They have been tapped for a range of benefits, including hydropower and irrigation, delivered through often extraordinary infrastructure projects that have spurred economic growth.

However, these projects were built to provide a narrow set of benefits and without consideration for the much broader range of benefits that rivers can support.

Due to their low profile, these diverse values of rivers have declined or been lost across the world, often because they were not fully understood or recognized in the first place or because their loss was viewed as unavoidable collateral damage for economic

growth – such as the dramatic decline of the Columbia River’s massive runs of salmon.

"Without a change in how we value and manage rivers, this narrow approach, and consequent losses, will play out in similar ways in river basins around the world, with significant negative consequences for economies".

The report emphasizes that these losses are not inevitable and unavoidable. Existing solutions, alongside emerging innovations, point toward much greater potential to reconcile economic growth with healthy rivers.

Fulfilling this potential will require a new ay of valuing rivers’ diverse benefits, supported by policies and practices designed to maintain or restore them.

Methods to quantify these benefits have made considerable progress in the past two decades, such as ecosystem service valuations. However, to date, the results of improved valuation have had limited impact on policies and practice. Thus, valuing rivers – effectively managing them for their full range of benefits – requires far more than just rigorous valuation of those benefits.

Although a foundation of strong science is necessary, it is not sufficient. Equally as important are factors such as who collaborates

on those valuations, whose views are represented, and how those values are communicated to important audiences that can form coalitions to support improved management, the WWF said.

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