To help celebrate ‘World Day for Audiovisual Heritage’ here are some of the best movies about rivers, lakes and wetlands.

I love watching movies. I also happen to love fresh water, which can be a bit of a distraction, with me grumbling ‘turn the tap off!’ while the character brushes his or her teeth. Apart from that, when a movie’s theme connects to fresh water, I’m all in. Here are some of my favourites, spoiler-free.

Night Moves (2013)

In this movie directed by Kelly Reichardt, three radical environmentalists plot to bomb a dam. Though not as captivating as her 2006 movie Old Joy (which actually also has a freshwater connection: the Bagby Hot Springs make a cameo appearance), it’s still gripping and well-filmed.

Before my colleagues have heart attacks, let’s be clear: WWF is, of course, completely opposed to illegally destroying dams. But we do think that the need for dams should be assessed against other alternatives, and that good practices should guide their siting, design and operation, helping to reduce their impact on freshwater habitats and species.

For example, in China, WWF is working with the Three Gorges Dam’s operating company to release water for carp spawning – these fish are an important food source for humans as well as the critically endangered Yangtze finless porpoise. These environmental flow requirements have now been incorporated within the dam’s standard operating rules – a great step forward.

Can you spot the person walking on top of the dam? It’s hard to capture the scale of China’s Three Gorges Dam, which is 185m high and 2.3km long. WWF is working with the dam’s operating company to release flows of water from the dam so that carp fish species can spawn © WWF-UK

A River Runs Through It (1992)

For me, this movie’s stars are the breathtaking Montana rivers – tributaries of the mighty Missouri – in which Brad Pitt & Co. fly-fish for trout. For the vast majority of fishers around the world though, fishing isn’t a leisure activity, instead providing a vital source of protein and livelihoods.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of freshwater fisheries (both wild-caught and farmed fish) worldwide: the numbers are astounding. Around 60 million people alone depend on the Mekong river basin’s inland fishery as their main source of protein.

Sadly, unsustainable fishing has caused Mekong fish populations to decline, and gillnets are the main cause of death of the Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin, of which only around 80 remain. WWF is promoting the creation of community-managed fish conservation areas where no fishing is permitted, protecting the dolphins and allowing fish populations to recover.

Fish Conservation Zones, like this one in Laos, are community-managed areas where no fishing is allowed. Key fish species spawn and grow in these protected areas before spilling over into the wider river, providing benefits for both ecosystems and local livelihoods © Adam Oswell/WWF

Chinatown (1974)

Chinatown is a fictional movie, but it echoes some real events from the early 1900s in California. At the time, the Los Angeles Aqueduct diverted water from the Owens Valley, creating a drought and bankrupting locals, while a handful of developers got rich from inside information about land deals.

The resulting ‘California Water Wars’ are an example of the tensions arising from differing views about who is entitled to use water resources, something known as water allocation. We want to ensure social and environmental needs are recognised in water allocation policies, processes and management systems.

Kenya and Tanzania’s Mara River flows through the world-famous Maasai Mara and Serengeti reserves and is a fearsome obstacle during the annual wildebeest migration. Rising populations and economic growth are increasing pressure on the river. To prevent future over-allocation, WWF is working on a transboundary water allocation plan between the two countries.

Every year hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle cross the Mara River to reach seasonally lush grasslands. Here, a herd of wildebeest braves cliffs, crocodiles and strong currents to make the perilous Mara River crossing © Kyle Levine

Even the Rain (2010)

In this fictional movie, a film crew inadvertently gets caught up in the protests against the privatisation of water supplies in Cochabamba, Bolivia. These demonstrations actually took place, in the year 2000, and eventually succeeded in restoring public ownership of the water utility.

In Cochabamba, the main issue was an increase in water rates. More generally though, Even the Rain is a good reminder of the central role that water plays in people’s lives. For communities who depend directly on rivers to meet their daily needs, the connection with fresh water is even stronger.

In India, WWF started a volunteering initiative, working with Mitras, or ‘Friends of the River’ to protect the Ramganga and Ganges rivers. Mitras come from all walks of life and we have so far managed to gain the support of thousands. Actions like sustainable farming and clean-up drives help the Mitras tangibly contribute to freshwater conservation and feel more connected to the ecosystems on which they depend.

Tara Devi is one of the most active Mitras (friends of the river) helping to protect the Ramganga River in India. Pictured here chopping up tall grass for buffalo fodder, she’s one of the thousands of farmers that have implemented sustainable farming measures © Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom for WWF-UK

Ten Canoes (2006)

This award-winning movie takes place in Australia’s Northern Territory. Filmed entirely in Aboriginal languages, it tells the story of tribal conflict and romantic intrigue in the Arafura Swamp. This is a slightly cheeky entry on my part, since I didn’t actually enjoy this one so much!

What I did like about Ten Canoes though was how well it showcased what wetlands contribute to human society; in this case food, shelter and spiritual fulfilment. Worldwide, wetlands also protect us from flooding, purify our drinking water, treat our wastewater and recharge our groundwater supplies.

Wetlands are also some of the planet’s richest and most diverse habitats. WWF-Brazil is working in the Pantanal – the world’s largest wetland – to secure long-lasting commitments from governments, the private sector and others to protect the springs and streams that flow into this incredibly biodiverse wetland.

As well as being home to thousands of species (like the jaguar, capybara and hyacinth macaw) the Pantanal also provides ecosystem services to around eight million people and supports the livelihoods of local people like this cattle rancher © WWF-Brazil/Adriano Gambarini

Find out more about WWF's work in river basins and wetlands here: 

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