Rivers for Life:

Managing Water for People and Nature

Posted: 24 May 2004

Author: Sandra Postel and Brian Richter
Island Press, Washington, DC (2003), $25 pb

This book asks the big questions about rivers, and sets forth to answer them fairly and fully. How much water does a river need to be healthy? Can rivers unite rather than divide the countries that share them? Given the world's growing thirst and limited water resources, can we save our rivers from death-by-desication?

Cover: Rivers of Life by Sandra Postel and Brian Richter
Cover: Rivers of Life by Sandra Postel and Brian Richter
The authors describe the state of the world's rivers, focusing on the effects of dams and diversions, and map out what steps can be taken to ensure rivers have long lives and adequate flows. "We [must] err on the side of allocating too much water to ecosystems rather than too little," they state. And they note that one big question about the world's rivers cannot be answered until it is too late to do anything about it: "How much more destruction of freshwater ecosystem functions can occur before whole lifesupport systems cease to function?"

There are chapters devoted to the nature of the problem; the basics of the science of "environmental flows" for restoring engineered rivers' health; "the policy toolbox" being developed by governments and agencies to reduce the harm we've already caused, and building blocks for changing the world of river management, such as the World Commission on Dams (described as "the foundation for a new architecture of river governance").

The book achieves a good balance between describing the problem and all its complexities (including the political and policy side of things), and putting forth solutions already being tried around the world - from South Africa's new water law and its emphasis on preserving river health, to pricing systems to discourage waste, to the need for introducing an ethical element in water law to help protect living things that rely on healthy rivers and watersheds.

While both authors are scientists, the book is highly readable, and neatly blends science's hard-edged facts with a passion that springs from a love of rivers and the urgency that saving them will require. This is a 'must read' for anyone who cares about rivers, and who wishes to be part of the solution in restoring them to life-sustaining health.

Source: World Rivers Review, Volume 18, Number 5 - October 2003.