Happy World Rivers Day! You might associate rivers with long summer strolls along the bank, boating, or the many water sports which Ireland’s rivers are renowned for.

But did you know that beneath the surface there is a lot going on too? Rivers are essential to Ireland’s biodiversity providing shelter and food to numerous species. Unfortunately, our rivers are under threat and currently only 53% have been classed as having good or high ecological status. This puts certain species such as otters, birds including the Kingfisher, and numerous invertebrates under threat too.

Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)
Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

Today we celebrate World Rivers Day to create awareness of the importance of our rivers and look at the some of the threats responsible for degrading them.

So how important are rivers anyway?

The answer is…very important.  Fresh clean water is necessary for all life forms, without it we would not exist. We often think of water as pure but in fact it is packed with essential minerals including sulphur, magnesium, and calcium, all of which we need. These minerals are also crucial for the land which they flow through. They are an essential part of the water cycle providing a natural drainage system to prevent flooding. Ireland has over 73,00 km of river channels, all teeming with biodiversity and without healthy rivers we would lose a significant portion of our flora and fauna.

Threats to Ireland’s Rivers

Threats to rivers vary depending on their location. Upland rivers are generally affected by forestry. These forests are usually dominated by Conifer plantations and because upland areas are already acidic the addition of conifers increase the acidic conditions by capturing air borne pollutants. This can have a serious impact on aquatic ecosystems. Extreme cases of acidification can cause death to fish and macroinvertebrates. Less extreme cases can cause respiratory difficulties, reproductive ability, and impaired growth which in the long-term cause the elimination of the effected organisms. Clear felling of these Conifer plantations causes soil disturbance resulting in sediment deposits in rivers resulting in damage to fish gills and upsetting the riverbed habitats which are necessary for spawning and bottom dweller invertebrates.

Rivers which flow through fertile agricultural land are under threat by run-off from intensive farming. With two thirds of Ireland’s land in agricultural use its no surprise of the huge negative impacts on rivers. Ireland’s water quality is drastically reduced by eutrophication due to agricultural runoff from slurry, silt, pathogens, and chemicals. This kind of pollution can increase the growth of algae which depletes the oxygen content of our rivers. Did you know that 70% of phosphates in Ireland’s inland waters come from agricultural sources.

Rivers in urban areas which are highly populated are at risk from human and industrial waste. You may be shocked to discover that raw sewage from 36 towns and villages in Ireland is still released into the environment every day. A staggering 58% of sewage from Ireland’s urban areas is discharged from plants which are not meeting the required European standard.

What is the solution?

In 2000 The Water Framework Directive was launched to protect our invaluable rivers, lakes, and beaches and their dependent wildlife. It was recently announced after a two year review this law will not be changed and instead requires 100% of freshwater to be of good ecological status by 2027. You can help at a local level by:

  • Educating yourself and others.
  • Sign up with catchments.ie where you can find out what is being done in your own area.
  • Join your local tidy towns committee and organised a river clean up.


Written by Mary Moroney