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River Restoration: A Strategic Approach To Planning And Management

Congress: 2015
Author(s): DAVID TICKNER (WOKING, UK), Robert Speed, Yuanyuan LI, Gang LEI
Independent1, GIWP2, WWF3

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 7: Global challenges for water governance,


A key water governance question concerns how we can best use rivers to support society even as population growth, economic development and climate change exacerbate pressures on the ecosystem services that river systems provide (Vörösmarty et al, 2010; Finlayson et al, 2005). Restoring critical elements of natural infrastructure in order to safeguard ecosystem services is increasingly considered part of the answer (Pegram et al, 2013; Tickner and Acreman, 2013).

This paper summarises research led by WWF and the General Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Planning and Design (GIWP, part of the Ministry of Water Resources, People's Republic of China) into the principles, procedures and approaches that have underpinned river restoration efforts globally. The Chinese Government has committed significant resources to undertake restoration in 9,000 small and medium-sized river basins (200 -- 3,000 km2). Many of these rivers run through heavily urbanized regions, with significant water pollution, altered flow regimes, channel modifications and loss of connectivity. Our aim was to produce guidance for those planning restoration programs, especially in the context of modified and degraded river systems. Rather than replicating existing technical manuals, the focus of this guidance is on strategic aspects of river restoration including the links between restoration, broader river basin planning processes and socio-economic development goals. The main output from the research will be a book, to be published through UNESCO, which will be part of a WWF-GIWP series addressing strategic water management challenges.


We commissioned expert reviews of river restoration in seven locations including the USA, Australia, South Korea, China, Europe and Singapore. Collectively, the reviews analysed experiences from small or medium-sized basins, large transboundary rivers and whole countries. Each review addressed standard questions regarding the planning of river restoration schemes, including prioritisation of interventions and desired outcomes; restoration methods; monitoring outcomes and impacts; institutional responsibilities and financing; and lessons learned.

From the reviews and a broader literature analysis we summarised the evolution of river restoration and distilled future challenges. We combined this analysis and earlier work on river basin planning (Pegram et al, 2013) to derive a strategic framework to guide river restoration planning.


Evidence suggests that, excluding concerns specifically for biodiversity, river restoration typically arose in response to a combination of stimuli, including those set out in Table 1:

The expert reviews also suggested that river restoration is being undertaken in increasingly complex and uncertain contexts, creating new challenges, e.g.:

In many situations, restoring a river to its past natural state requires unacceptable limitations on current and future human activities. A shift from reference-based approaches to thorough objective-based strategies is needed, linking to strategic socio-economic development goals.

Early projects were often designed to meet a primary objective, such as improved water quality. In developing economies, restoration projects may need to support multiple objectives, resulting in design complexity and trade-offs.

Many restoration projects have failed through tackling issues at the wrong spatial scale. Where drivers of river degradation are at the catchment scale, local restoration projects are unlikely to achieve the desired outcome.

Urban river restoration often aims to improve amenity values. Restoration approaches that focus on superficial improvements, such as regulating local river flows, underestimate the importance of underlying ecosystem functions and can result in costly, ineffective and unsustainable interventions.

Most projects have focused on restoring historic conditions, not resilience to future stresses and risks. In many basins, there is significant uncertainty around future climate, land use, population growth and urban development.

Successful river restoration interventions rely on understanding the processes that drive river function and a clear socio-economic theory of change. The planning and implementation of projects therefore requires scientific rigour. Better monitoring of contributions to environmental and socio-economic impacts will also be critical.


From our review, we derived a set of 'golden rules' for planning river restoration programs. These include:

Identify, understand and work with the natural functions and processes that drive river health and ecosystem services

Identify limiting factors to river health and act to address root causes of river degradation

Link restoration efforts to socio-economic values and broader planning and development activities in the basin

Work at the appropriate scale within the basin or landscape context

Develop clear, achievable and measurable goals at the appropriate time scale

Restore for resilience to future conditions

Incorporate river restoration within the water resources management framework to maintain currency and ensure sustainability

Ensure a sustainable financing method to support restoration works through to completion

Focus on collaborative action

Monitor, report, evaluate and adapt Vörösmarty, C.J., McIntyre, P. B., Gessner, M. O., Dudgeon, D., Prusevich, A., Green, P., Glidden, S., Bunn, S. E., Sullivan, C. A., Reidy Liermann, C. and Davies, P. M. (2010) Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity, Nature, vol 467, pp555-561

Finlayson, C.M., D’Cruz, R. and Davidson, N.C. (2005) Ecosystems and human well-being: wetlands and water synthesis, World Resources Institute, Washington DC

Pegram, G., Le Quesne, T., Li Yuanyuan, Speed, R. and Li, J. (2013) River basin planning: Principles, procedures and methods for strategic river basin planning, UNESCO, Paris; WWF, Godalming, UK

Tickner, D. and Acreman, M.C. (2013) Water security for ecosystems, ecosystems for water security, in B.A. Lankford, K. Bakker, M. Zeitoun and D. Conway (eds.) Water security: Principles, Perspectives and Practices, Earthscan Publications, London

2011 IWRA - International Water Resources Association - - Admin