Messing about in Rivers
Chris Dickens, currently working in Sri Lanka!
Chris’ whole career has been caring for river systems, initially in South Africa. More recently he has worked in Sri Lanka and more widely with the UN and other global organisations. Issues centre on the sustainability of water resources, especially with a view to agriculture’s demands on rivers. Read how philosophy and meditation have helped in this work. Chris is currently an online philosophy student.
As a child I grew up messing about in rivers and the sea, fishing, kayaking and diving. There was something about water, especially when it was in a bubbling stream or the curl of a transparent wave in the sea, that has always warmed my heart. So when as a young man I was offered a job as a scientist in the water industry, where my job would be messing about in rivers, it was like coming home. My passion and my hobby became my job! What a privilege.
As a budding philosopher at the time, I had a growing love of people. Through philosophy and also through my job, I was able to marry the two loves of my life. Protecting water-related ecosystems and supporting people, came together in access to water and also appreciation of mind and soul.
Novice in rivers
Even with degree qualifications, I was nevertheless a novice in water. So my first job with a large catchment and water management agency was the perfect training ground. I relished being thrust out into the field to do the most basic jobs. I was soon to make use of these to delve into the deeper aspects of the relationship between society and water resources. That initial basic training, with my feet in rivers, has been a benefit to the science that I have produced, and continues more than 30 years later.
I find that I have an intimacy, a first-hand knowledge of what constitutes a healthy river. Knowing how a river is being stressed and what can be done to retore it, is most useful when practising and communicating as a scientist.
After moving on to work for an NGO in South Africa, I progressed to working for the International Water Management Institute based in Sri Lanka, where I am the only ecologist amongst a very impressive staff complement . Although I am nearing retirement, my roots are deeper than ever, to rivers, lakes and wetlands and the people they serve.
Agriculture’s use of water
But now I am working on an international stage, working with the global community to try to protect water resources that are increasingly under threat. As an organization, our links are very close to small-scale agriculture for two reasons. Firstly because there is a need to feed so many people with a rapidly diminishing resource, and secondly because agriculture is the greatest threat to water-related ecosystems.
Already agriculture uses some 70% of the water withdrawn by people from water resources. With a growing global population and surging need for food, water resources are under serious threat. It is already well-documented that society is now living on its capital. We are using natural resources at a faster rate than can be provided by the Earth, which can only mean a threatened future for all of us.
Sustainability of water resources
The work that we are doing now is closely linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (the SDGs), of which every country on the planet is signatory. Here the UN document itself states that this is the first time in history that society has come together to chart its own future. The SDGs set out a programme of monitoring and action that could, if seriously adopted, lead to a sustainable future for all of us.
But I am still deeply connected to rivers and to people. Right now, we are finishing off a project that encapsulates how this all works, from feet in the water to policy. An example is that we are assessing the so-called “environmental flow” for the Limpopo River that runs through four countries in Southern Africa. The whole idea is that we need to determine how much water, in each month of the year, is necessary to keep the river ecosystem alive, so that it may continue to provide benefits to society.
It sounds like that would be an easy thing to do, but I have needed a team of a dozen people to work out just how this all fits together. There are many things that can go wrong. It starts with weeks spent messing about in the river (that is collecting samples and doing surveys) to understand the dynamics of the ecosystem itself.
Learning from what is in front
This cannot be learned from textbooks, but only from that specific ecosystem itself, a classic lesson of learning from what is in front. Definitely not relying on an overfilled mind to understand things! The insects, the fish and the plants of that ecosystem alone are quick to reveal if things are not well in the river, and it is that response of the biota (the living organisms) which is used to determine how much water is needed to keep the system optimal.
We also link this to the risks to society if too much water is withdrawn, helping river managers to make the difficult choices of who gets access to the water. The data and information that we produce will, over time, be incorporated into government management plans. These should guide the proper use of this river resource for the foreseeable future. So, this kind of project, and there have been many all over the world, brings together the two things that gladden my heart. Protecting water ecosystems and simultaneously helping society to make sustainable use of the water.
Timescale for rivers – forever!
In these matters, the timescale is forever, not the short-term horizons of the economist, but forever. We cannot recover natural resources once they are lost. So when society abuses our capital, we are spoiling the future for our children and their children. There is no coming back from this.
Yet this kind of work is only of value if it is taken up and adopted by society. So communication is a central role for any scientist and certainly has been for me. This means writing scientific papers and reports, presenting at conferences. Also, possibly most important, building up a network of trusted people who enable knowledge to be spread. Part of this communication has also meant writing policy at multiple levels.
Writing policy on rivers
I have had the privilege to write policy and guidelines for countries across the world from Myanmar to Morocco, to southern Africa, and also for the UN SDGs, the FAO (the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN), the IPCC (on climate change), the Convention in Biological Diversity, and the UN Food Systems Summit.
And the mission continues in my own heart, to serve water ecosystems and resources and to enable their sustainable use by people. The world is a big place, and the contrary pressures are immense, so the challenge in helping to get sustainable development rooted in society seems to be never-ending, but I do feel that in my small way I have been able to contribute.
Satisfaction in both career and philosophy
I have been blessed to have a deeply satisfying career that has married my personal love for water with the universal, with the basic needs of people not only for water but for solace, for spiritual nourishment. Studying philosophy all these years has helped to keep my perspective rooted in the universal.
Also important was preventing the ego from flourishing in an environment where it would be easy to become puffed up. This perspective has proved most useful when I have been thrust onto the world stage. Here it has been possible to remain collected and calm when all my ego wanted to do was run! Being a student of philosophy has also enabled focus on what is important.
Science by nature is flushed with data and information that can quickly overwhelm a person if there is no ability to centre on the real issue and not to be swayed by the extraneous. Despite not always being the most collected person in day-to-day life, I have always found an ability to cut to the chase both in writing scientific literature and in contributing to meetings. This always reminds me of the ongoing practice of meditation: the focus is the same, the simple choice to follow the real essence.
Sitting by a river
Water is fundamental to us and is close to our soul. It was not for nothing that all the great religions of the world base their stories of creation on water. Somehow my involvement with water has closed the loop for me, helping me to find a deeper satisfaction with life.
We all know what it is like to sit gazing over a lake at sunset, or to relax next to a bubbling brook with the sweet smell of clean water. How that brings peace and contentment! The cherry on the top of my work is the connection to the universal, connecting the soul to nature.
Enjoyed this article? Read another like this: Fisherman’s Friend on keeping fish sustainable.
See more about Chris: https://www.iwmi.cgiar.org/about/staff-list/chris-dickens/