Rivers of Food

How healthy rivers are central to feeding the world

Food security is at risk from growing threats to rivers, which support one third of global food production.

The urgent need to transform the world’s food systems is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Somehow we need to feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050 without destroying even more of the world’s remaining biodiversity or fuelling climate change.

We can rise to this enormous task. We can increase food production in ways that are nature positive and support our shared goals for healthy people and planet.

But only if we stop overlooking and undervaluing the central role of rivers in global food systems.

Rivers flow through our history. Our earliest civilizations were nourished by them from the Nile to the Indus, Ganges and Yangtze. 

Today one third of the world’s food production is still dependent on rivers—including food from freshwater fisheries, irrigation, flood recession agriculture, and deltas.

Yet few people are aware of the crucial importance of rivers to feeding humanity. Or understand that we will not be able to feed the world without valuing and sustainably managing our rivers.


Feeding the world without it costing the Earth

We need to feed the world’s growing population but our current practices are already harming nature and fuelling climate change.

The world is facing three fundamental and converging crises: climate change, nature loss and rising hunger.

Our unsustainable food systems are major drivers of all three - adding to the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming our world and converting intact forests, wetlands and grasslands to agriculture, while still not ensuring everyone has food to eat.

The world currently produces enough food for 7 billion people, although a billion people still suffer from insufficient food.

But we do so by exceeding sustainable boundaries for fertilizer use, land use, and impacts on nature and the climate. Beyond impacts to other resources, exceeding these boundaries will compromise our ability to grow enough food to feed the world.

Source: Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockstrom, J., et al. 2015. Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347(6223)

Add another 2.5 billion mouths to feed over the next 30 years and it’s a recipe for disaster. We will never remain within planetary boundaries unless we rapidly transform what we eat and how we produce it.

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Biodiversity is crucial to a thriving and resilient planet but we are facing a global nature crisis. Species populations have declined by 68% since 1970. The main driver? Our food production systems, which are responsible for 70% of biodiversity loss on land and 50% in freshwater.

Climate Change

Global food systems generate 29% of greenhouse gas emissions. Food production systems, including methane emissions from livestock, land use change, farm machinery and transport, are major contributors to emissions but vast amounts of food loss and waste also fuel the climate crisis. 

Land Use

Because it is a leading driver of many other environmental challenges, land use may be the single most pressing environmental issue of our day. Currently, agricultural land occupies 40% of all habitable land and land conversion is the main driver of deforestation, biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions from food production.


Excessive fertilizer use in food production has substantial consequences with runoff into streams and rivers driving the eutrophication of freshwater and marine ecosystems and subsequent development of dead zones, causing fish dieback and other environmental harm.

Food can’t be produced without water and agriculture currently accounts for over 70% of the freshwater used by humanity. But in many regions, we are now facing water crises.

Half of the world’s people live in areas that experience water stress, while 75% of the world’s irrigated crops are grown in water-stressed areas. And climate change threatens to expand the parts of the world experiencing water stress.

Furthermore, the production of food has some of the greatest impacts on the quality and quantity of water, and the health of the rivers, lakes, and wetlands upon which we all depend. 

© Water Risk Filter / WWF
© Water Risk Filter / WWF

The world is finally waking up to the urgent need for healthier, more sustainable and more equitable food systems.

This year, for the first time, the UN is hosting a Food Systems Summit to launch bold actions, solutions, and strategies to transform the global food system. However, the global dialogue has neglected the critical role that rivers play in feeding humanity.

We aim to change this. If we want to feed 10 billion people sustainably, we will need to manage our rivers to ensure they are healthy and resilient.

Flow of Food

Water, sediments and nutrients nourish food production

The four key ways that rivers feed the world.

Rivers are too often viewed as little more than water pipes. And, of course, their supply of water is critical for societies, economies and irrigating large areas across the globe.

But rivers also flow with sediments that sustain agriculturally productive deltas, and nutrients that nourish floodplain fields. And they support freshwater fisheries and most of the world’s aquaculture.

Yet they are seldom part of debates about how to sustainably feed the world.

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Rivers and other freshwater ecosystems produce 12 million tonnes of wild-caught freshwater fish per year. But with much of the freshwater catch going unrecorded, the true figure is estimated to be far higher - up to 19% of the global fish harvest.

Nearly half of the fish consumed worldwide comes from aquaculture. More than two thirds of fish from aquaculture are freshwater fish from facilities that rely on river systems for water, nutrients, feed, or fish eggs.

In total, more than 40% of global fish consumption relies on rivers, amounting to 4% of global protein supply.


Rivers carry sediment, such as silt and sand, and when they meet the ocean that sediment is deposited, creating and sustaining deltas - some of the most productive agricultural regions on Earth. With the continued flow of river sediment, deltas will grow over time and stay above the rising seas.

Deltas can be extremely productive because of the combination of plentiful water and continuous replenishment with nutrient-rich sediment. This incredible productivity has always drawn people to deltas, which are now home to around 500 million people.

Overall, deltas produce 4% of the world’s food on just 0.5% of the world’s land.

Koh Pdao, Kratie (Cambodia). Prum Sarean (44) and her husband Korm Sokhan (47) harvest rice in their paddy field. Trained by WWF, they started to host tourists in their house in 2007.


Approximately 25% of the world’s food supply comes from croplands that are irrigated from river water. This includes direct diversions of surface water from rivers and streams as well as pumping of groundwater that is directly connected to rivers.

Flood recession agriculture

People have used this natural form of irrigation since the dawn of civilization, when the first complex societies took advantage of the natural flood pulses in river valleys to grow their crops. As the floodwaters recede, they leave behind freshly deposited silt and nutrients with a replenished water table that nourishes young plants.

Flood recession agriculture is critically important in some regions of Africa and Asia, where it provides a vital source of food for many low income rural communities. Overall, there are at least 10 million hectares cultivated through flood recession agriculture. Equivalent to the cropland in Italy or Bangladesh, this produces around 1% of the world’s food - although this is likely an underestimate. 

The world’s first civilizations all formed alongside rivers. Today river-dependent food nourishes people across the planet from indigenous communities to mega-cities.

In the future, as the world heads for a population of 10 billion, rivers will continue to be central to global food security.

But rivers, and their ability to produce food, are under ever increasing threat.

Rivers at Risk

Resilience of rivers is cracking under growing pressure

The warning signs are clear: many rivers are running dry. Others are flooded with pollutants. Urgent action is needed.

We have long neglected our rivers. And we continue to take them for granted today, seldom factoring their health into decisions about water, food and energy supplies.

The result? Each of the four components of river food now face serious challenges due to poor management of our rivers as well as tough tradeoffs between the components and other uses of land and rivers.


Many of the most important river fisheries are declining due to ineffective management and overfishing, threatening freshwater ecosystems and long-term food security.


Pumping out too much water for irrigation can drain rivers, contributing to water shortages that already affect half the world’s population and three-quarters of the world’s irrigated land. 

Loss of river connectivity

Dams trap sediment needed to maintain deltas. As a result, agriculturally crucial deltas around the world are sinking and shrinking. Dams also block migratory fish, which are often the most important component of river fish harvest. 

Water pollution

Agriculture is the leading source of water pollution in the world. Excessive use of fertilizer leads to nutrient-rich runoff that can trigger harmful algal blooms and “dead zones”, impacting aquatic ecosystems and fish stocks.

The clearest indication of the damage we have done - and are still doing - to the world's rivers is the collapse in freshwater biodiversity.

Over the past 50 years, freshwater species populations have declined by 84% on average - far faster than in land or marine ecosystems.

Freshwater Living Planet Index ©WWF / ZSL

While we are working to transform the way we produce food, we can’t afford to overlook rivers any longer. We need to manage them as holistic systems - understanding that, if we do not, we will put global food security at risk.


Sustaining healthy rivers and food production

Transforming how we produce food won’t be easy. Nor will protecting, restoring and managing our rivers so they can keep feeding  the world.  

The challenges may seem huge. And they are. But solutions do exist, including changing to nature-positive food production, ensuring sustainable fisheries, safeguarding free flowing rivers, and switching to healthy and sustainable diets.

We all have our part to play from policy makers to funders, farmers, fishers and each one of us who wants to ensure that future generations will inherit a healthy planet and healthy rivers with a stable supply of healthy food for every person.

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Nature positive food production

A large body of research has shown that producing food in a way that is nature positive can be a “win-win” for people and planet, and is critical to sustainably feeding 10 billion people. It is based on stewardship of the environment and biodiversity as the foundation of critical ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration and soil, water and climate regulation.

Nature positive food production can include practices that reduce water use through improvements in irrigation efficiency and growing the right crops in the right location. It can also help to decrease pollution runoff into rivers through buffers and improved use of nutrients, restore biodiversity by integrating nature into agricultural lands, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions through better soil and manure management.

Elizete Garcia da Costa “Zeze” is an “isqueira” (a fisher that specializes in capturing small critters that will be used as bate for larger fish).

Sustainable fisheries and aquaculture

Undervalued for so long, countries need to prioritize and professionalize the management of freshwater fisheries by ensuring they all have management plans and by strengthening ecosystem-based management approaches. 

We must gather more accurate statistics on the annual catch and trends in wild capture fisheries, and scale up successful community fish management approaches. With aquaculture expanding rapidly, governments and businesses need to implement practices that ensure it is sustainable - and does not harm rivers and freshwater biodiversity.

A local woman holds up a dried fish fillet as people pass through the Luangwa Bridge Market, Zambia

Maintain free flowing rivers

Dams can block migratory fish and trap the sediment needed to maintain deltas. Today, hydropower is the primary driver of dam development on free-flowing rivers.

However, due to the renewable revolution—the dramatically dropping cost of generation from wind and solar, plus advances in batteries and other technologies—countries can now develop low carbon and low cost power systems without damming free-flowing rivers and sacrificing all the benefits they provide to people and nature. Meanwhile, existing dams can release environmental flows, including intentional flood pulses, to restore or maintain downstream flood recession agriculture and fisheries. 

Healthy and sustainable diets

Alongside the growing environmental impacts of unsustainable food production, our food choices also have a huge impact. Even widespread adoption of nature-positive food production will drive a rising demand for resources such as water and land, unless these practices are also accompanied by a significant reduction in overall demand for certain types of food.

A large body of evidence shows that reducing over-consumption of animal-source foods, by increasing the relative consumption of plant-based foods, confers both environmental and health benefits. Shifts to healthy and sustainable diets can therefore reduce the demand for water from rivers for irrigation, helping to maintain environmental flows and healthy rivers.

The health and food security of future generations depend on the decisions that we all take now.

We can stick with our current food systems and leave them with degraded rivers, diminished biodiversity, a warmer world and insufficient food. Or we can decide to transform what we eat and how we produce it as well as the way we manage our rivers - and leave them with a healthier and more sustainable world.

The choice is clear - transformation. But this must involve a new approach to our rivers.

We must value them for their central role in global food security and take urgent steps to protect and restore their health and strengthen their resilience.

If we do, our rivers will continue to play their central role in global food systems - helping to sustainably feed future generations.

For full references and methods, please click here

VALUING RIVERS: How the Diverse Benefits of Healthy Rivers Underpin Economies


BENDING THE CURVE: The Restorative Power of Planet-based Diets


Help to ensure healthy rivers and feed the world