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 Building with Nature Guideline > Lakes and rivers > Rivers environment

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River environment

Rivers are the conveyor belts that collect and transport excess precipitation and denudation products from the continents to the oceans. By transporting water and sediment, they create their own shapes through processes of erosion and sedimentation. Rivers transport also nutrients and seeds. Moreover, they sustain the lifecycles of fish by providing the routes for migration.


Rivers display a great variety in appearance. Their beds can consist of boulders, cobbles, gravel, sand or peat. They can be sinuous or straight. They can consist of a single, often meandering, channel or multiple channels. Multiple channels around bars that emerge above the water level at low flows characterize braided rivers. Multiple channels around more permanent and usually vegetated islands characterize anabranched or anastomosing rivers (Makaske, 2001).


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System description

Rivers constitute a socio-ecological system driven by


  •  abiotic physical processes
  •  biotic ecosystem processes
  •  interactions between the biotic and abiotic processes
  • governance structures and management systems

The combination of these aspects create a highly complex and dynamic environment, where human interventions can have an impact on a number of these system components on a range of temporal and spatial scales.


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Ecosystem services

Rivers have been providing a wide variety of benefits to mankind for millennia, making rivers the cradle of civilization. Rivers have always been an important source of water as well as an essential transport route for humans as well as aquatic life. For mankind, rivers also have great recreational and cultural values. These benefits, and others, are known as ecosystem services, commonly divided into:

  • provision,
  • regulation,
  • cultural benefits, and
  • support (United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, click here for more information).


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Building with Nature opportunities

Building with Nature involves measures or interventions that optimize the use of ecosystem services to achieve new functionality, sustainability and new opportunities for nature. All over the world, rivers face challenges for which Building with Nature could offer solutions. Many rivers have lost space in the past by interventions to reclaim agricultural land, to avoid ice jams, to eradicate malaria, to improve navigation and log transport, and to expand urban areas. The resulting confinement increased flood levels and the resulting concentration of flows in the main channel eroded the river bed, often several metres in just one or two centuries. Sediment mining and interruption of natural sediment transport by constructing dams had similar effects (Kondolf, 1997), adding up to the effects of narrowing by river training. The lower water levels resulting from river bed erosion draw down surrounding groundwater levels, drain connected wetlands, and reduce inundation frequencies of floodplains, obliterating valuable riverine habitats and exacerbating the effects of droughts.


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Experiences from the past have shown that hard-engineering interventions in rivers may provide local solutions on a short term, but often develop problems on a long term. This underscores the need of smarter, nature-based and more adaptive interventions to optimize fluvial ecosystem services in a sustainable manner. Building with Nature is one of the obvious ways to fulfil this need.


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