Hundreds of people from around the world joined in on a virtual event hosted by International Rivers, highlighting the challenges and opportunities for free-flowing rivers and the communities that surround them during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The webinar, From Crisis to Opportunity: COVID-19 and the Future of our Rivers, included speakers from the International Rivers team, including webinar host and  director of programs Michael Simon, Thailand and Burma campaigns director Pai Deetes, Latin American program coordinator Monti Aguirre, as well as introducing the new executive director of the organisation Darryl Knudsen, who begins his new role on 1 June.

“I’m delighted to be joining this storied organisation, especially at this moment, when our mission is more critical than ever. I’m immensely grateful, honoured and humbled to be joining this powerful community of river advocates, and I do look forward to contributing my experiences, talents and perspectives to this important movement,” said Knudsen.

“We find ourselves in challenging times. And we don’t know what’s around the next bend in the river. We do know that this global pandemic is creating direct menace for river advocates, dam affected peoples and the rivers themselves.”

“These immediate threats are also occurring in the larger context of climate change, habitat destruction, economic and social hardship and inequities, and the alarming increase of widespread authoritarianism, all of which are creating existential threats to communities and river ecosystems.”

Addressing the state of the Mekong River, Pai Deetes described the importance of the river and having natural resources as a base safety net during a time of crisis and more lockdowns and economic factors continue to unfold during the pandemic.

“Many people, including informal workers, labourers and taxi drivers, have been returning from cities to rural areas in time of crisis with no or less income,” said Deetes.

“The forest, rivers and wetlands –  nature’s supermarket – provide food and nutrients for millions of people in the Mekong region. This is critical in countries that have limited social safety nets available for the people affected by the pandemic and locked down during this time.

Deetes said the ability of the Mekong and other major rivers to sustain communities is under threat as declining natural resources will “make life more difficult”.

“This situation has been increased due to extensive hydropower development in the Mekong basin, both in upstream in the upper regions, as well as in the lower basin, which have destroyed fisheries, reduced productivity of local farmers and other regimes that people rely for livelihoods. Many people are already facing pressure and vulnerability due to the displacement for dams and other large infrastructure projects, so the situation is even more dire for this group” she said.

There is, however, strong solidarity among communities in the region, Deetes said, which is “a positive” during the pandemic.

Meanwhile in South America, Monti Aguirre shared the current challenges in the Brazilian Amazon, where issues surrounding illegal loggers, miners and land grabbers are “taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to intensify attacks on territories of indigenous people and other communities”.

“They are sacking natural resources and spreading the virus to vulnerable groups,” said Aguirre.

“In the Brazilian Amazon, the Bolsonaro government is attempting to proceed with construction of the Castanheira dam on the Arinos River, an enormously expensive project that would produce a mere 140 megawatts of electricity, provoking disastrous consequences for fish biodiversity and the livelihoods of indigenous peoples.

“Brazil is also facing a severe backlog in environmental policies and governance, with environmental bodies such as the IBAMA, being dismantled.”

Aguirre also said that due to COVID-19, like many parts of the world, “nature is getting a break”, with rivers flowing without human intervention and landscapes flourishing throughout the country.


Photo: Nowaczyk /

Construction waste in the water channels have reduced by 80 per cent, such as in Peru, however the combination of the pandemic, climate change and water scarcity, are still prevalent and impacting on the communities around regions such as Chile.

“Right now, we need to protect and respect the water cycle,” said Aguirre. “Rivers have the fundamental right to flow freely and reach the ocean; the right to perform essential functions within its ecosystem; the right to be free from pollution; the right to feed and be fed by sustainable aquifers; the right to native biodiversity and the right to restoration.

“Without environmental restoration, there is no social restoration. For this, we’re collaborating with partners in Brazil, Chile and Colombia, to create permanent protections for four rivers, similar to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in the United States to strengthen existing policies.”

International Rivers will soon launch a blog series based on the webinar, with further in-depth insights on rivers in a range of regions, and how COVID-19 is impacting these areas.

The organisation is calling on the community to take action and help protect rivers and surrounding communities during the current pandemic.

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