Freshwater Reviews, Vol 7, No 2 (2014)

Socio-economic, commercial and political factors in river recovery and restoration: has ecology taken a back seat?

Terry E.L. Langford, Peter J Shaw
DOI: 10.1608/FRJ-7.2.787 | Pages: 121-137


In industrialised countries over the last sixty years a combination of new laws, technological advances, scientific developments, commercial and economical changes, and public and political opinion has resulted in the chemical and ecological recovery of many rivers that have been polluted over centuries.  Improvements to water quality have been directly and positively linked – through both experimentation and the long-term monitoring of chemical and ecological conditions – to ecological enhancement, usually measured in terms of taxon richness or community diversity and expressed as readily interpretable indices.

Ecological enhancement has often been used as the major reasoning behind efforts to restore rivers to their natural hydro-geomorphic (geographical, geological and hydrological) condition, based on the hypothesis that increasing hydro-geomorphic diversity in river catchments and floodplains will in turn increase the natural diversity of living organisms.  However, direct studies and metadata analyses demonstrate that any relationship between physical restoration and ecological indicators is at best uncertain and at worst neither quantified nor readily quantifiable, and even the physical results of such restoration projects have not always met expectations, with many schemes failing for various reasons.

In this article we propose that it is not the potential improvements to the ecology or the physical characteristics of the rivers (hydromorphology) that has been of primary importance when deciding to carry out restoration projects; instead it is a drive by the global finance industry to deliver flood alleviation schemes and thus save huge compensation payments, and political expediency where public opinion has reacted strongly against flooding.  Evidence includes the continued planning of such projects under the guise of ecological improvements, even in the light of the clear physical and ecological failures of many completed river restorations.  Since the success or failure of such proposals is measured often by public attitudes and subjective opinions, ecological consequences are often not measured.  However, advances in science and the involvement of ecologists with distinguished careers and high integrity may have provided scientific gravitas to facilitate acceptance of the plans.

We also explore some of the unintended commercial and social consequences of pollution controls in the UK during the 1960s, including accelerated industrial emigration, which in turn had significant and predictable repercussions in developing countries such as China and India.  The effects these consequences will have on future restorations and pollution controls are considered, as well as potential international social, political, commercial and economic requirements particularly in newer and future industrialised countries.