Protecting Free Flowing Rivers – briefing for banks how to avoid harm

Protecting Free Flowing Rivers – briefing for banks how to avoid harm

“Free flowing river” is an intuitively clear and appealing concept, but if we want its protection to be embedded into policies and regulations there is a need for formalized definition and identification algorithms. Our first attempt is directed at development banks, which often support destructive infrastructure projects negatively affecting wild rivers.

International Rivers, Friends of the Earth US, and Rivers without Boundaries co-published a new briefing paper, called, “Protecting biodiversity from harmful financing: Free flowing rivers.” The briefing paper explains why it is important for banks and financiers to prohibit direct and indirect financing to harmful activities which negatively impact or alter free-flowing rivers.

The paper offers useful lessons and key takeaways on how the international banking sector can establish strong water and exclusionary policies in order to protect free-flowing rivers and the communities reliant on them. Free-flowing rivers are critical for safeguarding biodiversity, maintaining water supply, mitigating climate change, and supporting local and Indigenous communities. However, free-flowing rivers are threatened by harmful dams and water infrastructure activities, which are often enabled by bank financing.

Key takeaways of this paper include: 

– The Banks and Biodiversity Initiative defines free-flowing rivers as rivers that flow undisturbed from their source to mouth, at either the coast, an inland sea or at the confluence with a larger river, without encountering any dams, weirs or barrages and without being hemmed in by dykes or levees

– Fluvial connectivity and hydrological alterations are key aspects when assessing the free flow of a river

– Banks and financiers should prohibit financing which negatively impacts the connectivity and flow of free-flowing rivers, in order to preserve the livelihoods, biodiversity, and multiple other benefits of the world’s remaining free-flowing rivers

– Freshwater river ecosystems are disappearing three times faster than forests

– A major driver of biodiversity and habitat loss in freshwater ecosystems is river fragmentation caused by dam building

– Harmful water and dam projects financed by banks are historically associated with high risks of negative reputational, environmental, social, and biodiversity impacts

– Banks and financiers should require free, prior, informed consent of impacted local and Indigenous communities across all transactions as a means to reduce the high risks associated with harmful water and dam projects

– Banks and financiers should support a moratorium on new dams in the economic recovery as a key step in reassessing energy options and plans, including all pipeline projects, and reducing the probability of increasing debt burdens from high-cost, high-risk/low-reward projects

– Banks and financiers can facilitate opportunities to protect threatened biodiversity and freshwater ecosystems (and the communities and economies that rely on them) by moving energy production away from rivers

– Banks and financiers should prioritize upgrades to existing hydropower projects to increase efficiency instead of building new dams. This can include retrofitting turbines, improved pumped storage, protecting upstream forests and watersheds to reduce siltation and grid integration with wind, solar, and other energy innovations

– Banks and financiers should require clients to assess potential impacts of water-related infrastructure and to conduct robust, thorough basin-wide assessments which incorporate river pressure indicators and other criteria discussed in the Banks and Biodiversity Briefing Paper Series, “Protecting Biodiversity from Harmful Financing: No Go Areas for the International Banking Sector”

– Protecting rivers protects communities, and communities protect rivers

This paper is part of a briefing paper series. Each briefing paper is dedicated to a key area as identified by the Banks and Biodiversity Initiative’s eight proposed No Go areas. Free-flowing rivers are considered as No Go Area 5, which is Paper 05 of the series.  

International Rivers, Friends of the Earth US, and Rivers without Boundaries are part of the Banks and Biodiversity Initiative, a civil society coalition that advocates that banks and financiers strengthen their biodiversity policies and practices in order to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. Learn more at