I’ve been away in the UK for a few years – and what do I find when I come back? In the Murray Darling we are still arguing over inputs (the amount of water to be returned to the river) instead of focusing on the state we actually want the river system to be in, and how to make it so.
Water is no more than a means to an end, and if I have learned one thing it is that means don’t guarantee ends in this game. Restoring the ecological condition of rivers is not easy: we rarely achieve large-scale ecological management and restoration. European Union member states have spent over €80 billion (A$102 billion) to little effect in an effort to return their rivers to “good” ecological condition, and statistical analyses of thousands of river and catchment restoration projects around the world indicate that success rates are low: one sometimes needs a stiff drink when reading about research into restoration projects, with only around 10% of such projects achieving documented success.
The European Environmental Bureau, a federation of 140 EU citizens groups, reviewed what had been achieved 10 years on from the EU’s Water Framework Directive, which was aimed at cleaning and restoring waterways. The federation’s report has an appropriately depressed tone: “massive procrastination”; “generic excuses”; “unnecessarily drowning in complexity and ignorance”; “lack of transparency and robust assessments”, and so on.
So this is the elephant in the room: river restoration is rarely successful, so we talk about inputs instead: money invested, volumes of water diverted, meetings held, kilometres of fences built. Then we do a lot of hand waving about time lags – and hope.
You can get people to talk about this problem privately but not publicly. It is time for a more public debate. We have a major policy conundrum on our hands. Just now, when “evidence-based” policy is so popular, the lack of real success stories from ecological research is striking. More often than we care to face up to, we are flailing around with little idea of whether our actions work or not. As MJF Taylor and his peers found when they studied conservation efforts for threatened species in Australia, “there is surprisingly little evidence about which conservation approaches are effective in arresting or reversing threatened species declines.” What was clear was that most species continued to decline.
We do achieve many minor victories, but the big picture is not so good. Large-scale global assessments such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the 3rd Global Biodiversity Outlook show widespread declining biodiversity and ecosystem degradation, especially in freshwaters. We have achieved success with many individual species but at the community and ecosystem level (particularly at regional and catchment scales) we are failing.
On Saturday, approximately 4,000 volunteers and community leaders joined forces to clean the banks of the 80-mile Charles River at the 13th Annual Earth Day Charles River Cleanup. In a collaboration led by Charles River Watershed Association, volunteers from the Charles River watershed and beyond worked together to remove litter and beautify the Charles River and its surrounding parklands in one of the nation’s largest one-day river cleanup events. Volunteers removed an estimated 15-20 tons of trash from sites throughout the watershed.
In addition to acknowledging and celebrating Earth Day, this year’s event was a celebration of the Charles River being awarded the Thiess International Riverprize.
“For 13 years we have been celebrating Earth Day by organizing one of the largest river clean-ups in the nation – a day devoted to helping the river with lots of friends. This year, we are also celebrating the 42nd Earth Day, the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, and the Charles receiving the International RiverFoundation’s International Riverprize. It’s a good day all around,” said Bob Zimmerman, CRWA’s Executive Director.
At the lunchtime Hatch Shell event following the Cleanup activities, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Bill Walsh-Rogalski announced the agency’s 2011 report card score of B for the Charles River. DCR Commissioner Edward A. Lambert was also on hand to thank volunteers for their efforts in cleaning up state park lands.
State Senator William Brownsberger (D-Belmont) said, “I, along with my family and staff, was thrilled to participate and organize volunteers for this year's Charles River Cleanup in Brighton and Watertown. Volunteers from many surrounding communities came out to clean the Charles River and surrounding open spaces, and I want to thank everyone for working so hard to enhance the river for all of us to enjoy.”
After the Cleanup, volunteers gathered to celebrate, share refreshments, and enjoy entertainment at picnics across the watershed, including the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade in Boston, the Blue Herron Trail Way in Waltham, and Whole Foods in Bellingham. The picnics finished off a productive and rewarding day of community service beautifying one of Boston’s and Eastern Massachusetts’ premier attractions.
Ms Ikal Angelei, a young Kenyan woman is leading a protest movement that could yet block one of East Africa's most significant infrastructure projects. The campaign has netted her one of this year's Goldman Prizes, one of the highest annual honours for grassroots environmental activists.
Not that there are too many grass roots in the Turkana region of Kenya, on the border with Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda. Rains have been infrequent as far back as communal memory stretches and have become even scarcer in recent years. The region's prized water resource is Lake Turkana.
It's one of those unusual "endorheic" lakes that has no outflow; water that flows in, and is not used directly, either evaporates or percolates down into aquifers, which in turn provide water for those pastoralists who keep their herds some way distant from the lake itself.
Now, the Ethiopian government is building a major dam, GIBE-3, on the Lower Omo river just over the border. The Omo currently provides about 80% of Lake Turkana's water. GIBE-3 would be one of the biggest dams in the world, dwarfing its neighbours and at nearly 240m high, the dam would generate 1,870MW at full flow. It would become the biggest dam in Africa, and the fourth-largest in the world.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says it must be built "at any cost" to help Ethiopia electrify and develop, and to power the irrigation schemes and plantations he wants to establish along the Omo valley. The Kenyan government, which is likely to buy some of the electricity, also supports the scheme. But Ikal Angelei fears the dam could dry the lifeblood for hundreds of thousands of people in the river valley and around Lake Turkana - lowering the water level by many metres, increasing the already high salinity, and preventing the drainage into aquifers that keeps cattle alive kilometres away.
"Communities that have been benefiting from the flow and the pasture will all have to move to where water is available - you're creating pressure for conflict in an area that already has a high potential for conflict because of scarce resources," she says.
Ms Angelei does not downplay the development benefits that GIBE-3's electricity could bring, though she does dispute Ethiopian government claims that its impact on Lake Turkana will be negligible.
What she's asking for first is to have the issues discussed thoroughly and openly, with all factors on the table.
She argues that the governments are looking at the potential economic benefits of the project without understanding its economic costs. No-one has yet studied the net worth of the fish Lake Turkana produces, the benefits of the cattle pasture - and the costs that society will have to bear if those things disappear. And there are questions too of whether hydroelectric schemes are the best way to power a region that regularly sees droughts and may in future see them even more frequently as a consequence of man-made climate change.
Water could be pumped 80 miles east from Birmingham in emergency plans to help out drought-hit areas of England.
Severn Trent Water is discussing plans to sell excess supplies to Anglian Water, which has imposed its first hosepipe ban for 20 years.
Under the deal, 30 million litres of water, enough to supply 100,000 homes, would be flowed daily to Gainsborough, in Lincolnshire, Severn Trent said.
David Essex, water strategy manager, said the move could happen in June.
He added: "We now know we are in a position to be able to help our neighbours while having enough to keep our own customers in supply."
The company has not revealed how much it might sell the water for, although Mr Essex said it would not make large profits from the deal.
"We are certainly not going to be making a large amount of money on this, but it's to help out our neighbours across the way."
Anglian Water is one of seven companies in the South East and East Anglia to impose water restrictions following two dry winters that have left reservoirs, aquifers and rivers below normal levels.
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