Freshwater ecosystems are poorly represented in global networks of protected areas. This situation underscores an urgent need for the creation, application, and expansion of durable (long-term and enforceable) protection mechanisms for free-flowing rivers that go beyond conventional protected area planning. To address this need, we must first understand where and what types of protections exist that explicitly maintain the free-flowing integrity of rivers, as well as the efficacy of such policy types. Through policy analysis and an in-depth literature review, our study identifies three main policy mechanisms used for such protections: (1) River Conservation Systems; (2) Executive Decrees and Laws; and (3) Rights of Rivers. We found that globally only eight counties have national river conservation systems while seven countries have used executive decrees and similar policies to halt dam construction, and Rights of Rivers movements are quickly growing in importance, relative to other protection types. Despite the current extent of protection policies being insufficient to tackle the freshwater and biodiversity crises facing the world’s rivers, they do provide useful frameworks to guide the creation and expansion of protections. Ultimately, as countries act on global calls for protections, policy mechanisms must be tailored to their individual social and ecological geographies.
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