What is your motivation for doing research related to free-flowing rivers?
I am fascinated by the ecological complexities arising from the simple flow of water down a river corridor. Thanks to flowing water, natural river networks are extremely complex and dynamic landscapes that harbour an over-proportional amount of the Earth´s biodiversity, supporting humans with a range of vital services, and constitute an important component in the Earth´s biogeochemical cycles. We are far from understanding how rivers achieve this, specifically when we accept that they can´t be understood below the scale of an entire dendritically shaped river network tied to the landscape matrix it drains. Yet, we readily strip rivers of their very central feature – flowing water – for often little benefits, but in fact inestimable costs. Trying to understand how rivers function and sharing my fascination for their ecology is an act against the short-sightedness with which rivers are readily destroyed without understanding the consequences.
Why should we defend these wild rivers?
Changing water flow, sediment transport or morphology of a river may have rather obvious and potentially acceptable consequences at the local scale. Yet, the individual reaches of a river network are all interconnected by flowing water that moves sediment, solutes and organic material, and by dispersing species. We have very little idea about long-term and regional-scale consequences of local river “development” has on biodiversity, the provisioning of services to humans or biogeochemical cycles. It´s a matter of risk management and prudence to maintain the wild nature of rivers.
Further, natural rivers constitute wilderness in front of our doors, they frequently remind us of our precarious position on the planet and can thus teach and efficiently guide us in our search towards a sustainable future. Striving for natural rivers is a catalyst for mankind´s transformation towards sustainability. If we get it right with rivers, that´s a big step towards getting it right with the planet.