[STATEMENT] The Riverkeepers: Environment Defenders Safeguarding Beacons of Life

September 24, 2023



On #WorldRiversDay, the Asia Pacific Network of Environment Defenders (APNED) reaffirms its commitment to protecting rivers and the communities and environment defenders that protect its pristine and the biodiversity that depends on and thrives in it.

Rivers are essential to life. They provide us with water for drinking, irrigation, and sanitation. They are also home to a diverse range of plants and animals. But rivers are threatened by pollution, overfishing, climate change, and destructive development projects that seek to capitalize on and control their vast energy potential and influence since numerous riverside and forest communities depend on them.

In the East Asia and Southeast Asia transboundary, particularly in the Mekong River, dams are blocking Asia’s most substantial, influential, and strategic rivers under the guise of development. In particular, its hydropower potential is being tapped primarily by China and Thailand. Most major dam proponents also push the narrative that dams are “climate change solutions” because they produce clean energy. In reality, these dams do not contribute to the fight against climate change through deforestation to make way for the huge dam infrastructure, and they also emit additional greenhouse gas emissions. They also divert the rivers’ natural flow, preventing them from enriching biodiversity through their natural sediments, crucial for the growth and sustenance of aquatic flora and fauna.

Additionally, these huge man-made structures also cause internal conflict, create political tension amongst countries due to their close ties with economic control through exports of energy and natural resources, and violate the human rights of communities, particularly indigenous groups, through massive internal displacement, disregard for their cultural heritage with nature, and hindering them from continuing their long-standing livelihood of fishing.

To date, 160 dams are operating on the Mekong basin and its tributaries; 13 are in the mainstream river, with many more still being planned or under construction.

Environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) are on the frontlines of the fight to protect rivers. The historical experience of Indigenous Peoples in the Cordillera Region in the Philippines is a continuing struggle to protect their resources against the Chico River Dam Project under the 1972 Martial Law. Now, these communities are facing the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project under China financing. EHRDs and communities are often harassed, threatened, forcibly displaced, and even killed for their work. APNED is in solidarity with them across Asia and the Pacific, and these brave defenders are fighting to protect our remaining pristine rivers.

Therefore, we also call on governments to uphold human and environmental rights by strictly implementing protection policies, holding perpetrators accountable, and resisting modern-day encroachment and usurping of countries like China regarding control over natural resources.

We also call on businesses to operate sustainably and not harm our rivers by adhering to the guiding principles on business and human rights and listening to the science and voices of environmental advocates and defenders on the destructive impacts of irresponsible development projects on biodiversity and human rights.

We call on civil society to promote and protect communities’ sustainable agriculture and fishing practices, particularly from indigenous groups, and strengthen the calls for accountability and justice by raising awareness and supporting policies that protect indigenous groups and environment defenders.

By taking these actions, we can all help protect our rivers flow-free for the benefit of everyone and ensure a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for ourselves and future generations.