The world’s big rivers and their floodplains were central to development of civilization and are now home to c. 2.7 billion people. They are economically vital whilst also constituting some of the most diverse habitats on Earth. However, a number of anthropogenic stressors, including large-scale damming, hydrological change, pollution, introduction of non-native species and sediment mining, challenge their integrity and future, as never before. The rapidity and extent of such change is so great that large-scale, and potentially irreparable, transformations may ensue in periods of years to decades, with ecosystem collapse being possible in some big rivers. Prioritizing the fate of the world’s great river corridors on an international political stage is imperative. Future sustainable management, and establishment of environmental flow requirements for the world’s big rivers, must be supported through co-ordinated international funding, and trans-continental political agreement to monitor these rivers, finance their continual upkeep and help ameliorate increasing anthropogenic pressures. To have any effect, all of these must be set within an inclusive governance framework across scales, organizations and local populace.
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Data and data sources for some of the data discussed in this paper are given in Supplementary Table 1.
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I am indebted to C. Simpson for his exceptional graphical and database skills that were essential in preparing the figures, and I am very grateful for the provision of papers, figures and data from their own research by N. Arnell, P. Glennie, Y. Hirabayashi, D. Hoeinghaus, E. Latrubesse, H. Paltan and C. Zarfl.
I am also truly indebted to my colleagues who I have been incredibly fortunate to work with over many years, and who have provided considerable insights into, and opportunities to study, some of the world’s largest rivers. Writing of this paper was aided by a Diamond Jubilee International Visiting Fellowship at the University of Southampton, UK, and its publication has been supported by the Jack and Richard Threet Chair in Sedimentary Geology at the University of Illinois, USA.
The author declares no competing interests.
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A correction to this article is available online at https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0295-1.
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