How to Teach about Drinkable Rivers and Healthy Economies

Sustainability expert and business writer, Desiree Driesenaar, writes about the interconnectedness our planet asserts through its rivers.

Updated: May 14, 2023
Desiree Driesenaar


[Originally published on Medium]

Not so long ago, river water was drinkable. And we can go there again. Rivers and Li An Phoa teach us about healthy economies.

Some years ago, I met Li An Phoa for the first time. We share a love for Schumacher College and regenerative practices to heal our world and our economies. She wasn’t well-known then. She’s becoming rather prominent now with her foundation and citizen’s initiative ‘Drinkable Rivers’.

Li An is an activist, researcher, and university teacher. She taught me about rivers and flow and economies. And I want to share this knowledge with you. In my own way. As a tribute and teaching and experimenting ground in one.

We all need to know about water. If we don’t know, how can we find it in our hearts to care for our waters?

Water Is Life

Water is life. Up to 60% of our human body consists of water, according to USGS, Science for a Changing World. I think no one will deny that freshwater is very important to our bodies.

And there is not much freshwater available to us, humans, and other living species. According to the researchers of National Geographic, only 0.007 percent of the planet’s water is available to fuel and feed its 6.8 billion people and all the other species.

“Freshwater makes up a very small fraction of all water on the planet. While nearly 70 percent of the world is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh. The rest is saline and ocean-based. Even then, just 1 percent of our freshwater is easily accessible, with much of it trapped in glaciers and snowfields.”

National Geographic

Water Needs to Flow

The Austrian scientist Viktor Schauberger taught us how water needs to flow to keep it healthy. I learned about Viktor on my Blue Economy learning path. And later, Spring College organized a walk with his grandson Joerg Schauberger.

Mesmerizing! Do you know that water purifies itself just by flowing?

In a river, the stream flips over in vortexes. Going one way, it pushes the oxygen out, making sure the anaerobe micro-organisms cannot survive. Going the other way, oxygen flows in again, allowing life in its fullest form.

Wow, nature is ingenious, don’t you think?

So, why do we kill our water?

We store it in tanks, not flowing. We use chemicals to clean it, not vortexes. We don’t allow water to be our natural companion. And nurture us with life-giving minerals, oxygen, and positive energy…

Rupert River, Canada / fargomeD

Rupert River, Canada / fargomeD


If you look at a globe and picture it as a female body, Gaia, rivers are the veins that flow through her. We can look at it as mythology, but there’s also Gaia theory in science.

James Lovelock (chemistry) has developed the theory together with the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s. They say:

"that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet." — wikipedia

Forget the difficult words. Leave them to the scientists.

Just imagine… Wow!

The planet as a living, self-regulating organism. It doesn’t sound so strange. Air flows, weather patterns, water cycles, they all interact and create our surroundings. A life-permitting environment for all species…

So, why not a living being?

Since Gaia Theory was published, many scientists have been exploring the theory in all its aspects. Many scientists have become convinced that systemic thinking (as explained here by physicist Fritjof Capra) is needed in science to understand it all.

We, our human bodies, are not made out of separate parts. And the whole planet is not made out of separate parts. No, all physical parts are interconnected. And the connections and space in between the parts might prove more important than the physical parts themselves.

Pfew, when I first understood this, I needed some time to grasp what it means. To me. To us. To our way of being on this planet.

  • Our planet is a living being
  • We are part of our planet
  • Our bodies consist mainly of water
  • We are connected to all the water on the planet

Read Also

Rivers Are the Veins

I’m not going to make this difficult. If you understand it up to now, it’s easy to grasp that the rivers full of freshwater are very important connections between every living being on our planet. Look at the top picture. These rivers just look like veins, don’t they?

And the water flowing so beautifully is freshwater needed for our health.

We drink it.

We bathe in it.

We cook our food in it.

Canoeing the Rupert River

In her TEDx talk, Li An Phoa tells us how her love of a river started with canoeing the Canadian Rupert river in 2005. The river was drinkable back then. She was an activist and the river would be dammed.

A few years later she came back and the river had become badly polluted with mercury due to mining. One decision. One mine. One dam. And a whole system of healthy beings living together got ruined in a flash. For what?

We, humans, together with our money-God, were playing destruction-games again…

It’s just not smart what we’re doing. We’re ruining the only home we have. And we can do so much better…

How Can We Do Better?

So, let’s explore what we can do better. First of all, we can look at the connections. And looking at a river, who connects dots on a map, helps.

If we make a mistake or we pollute upstream, the fish, frogs, and people downstream suffer. Just cause and effect. So, if we monitor the river at different locations, and different times, we can see what’s happening in the whole system. And we can motivate all people involved to find solutions together.

We can optimize the whole system instead of maximizing one part of the system.

Li An believes in experience, love, and care.

She walks along rivers and invites citizens, entrepreneurs, mayors, children, artists, and whoever else, to walk with her. During the walks, they experience the river. Feel love for her. Get to know her. And start to care more.

Within Li An’s Drinkable Rivers, citizen scientists do the monitoring. They measure temperature, e.coli bacteria, phosphate, pH value, etc. And apart from chemical monitoring, there are also groups monitoring the ecological side of the river, looking at plants and dragonflies.

They are instructed and the data is combined in one database noting the date, time, extra details (e.g. directly after rainfall) and values. Many children participate, learn, and have fun doing so!

It’s such a great method to:

  • Teach how everything is connected
  • See the bigger picture by realizing what the reasons are for certain results
  • Get to know the water, the river, and experiment with her
  • Get to love our own river
  • Start to care for our river

In practice, people start to realize that they cause certain effects themselves.

  • Poo is gone out of your sight when you flush the toilet. But, depending on the local sewage system, it can cause a peak of e.coli in the river
  • If you clean your hair with non-biodegradable shampoo, the chemicals will end up in the river
  • If you wash your anti-sticking pan, forever chemicals such as PFAS might appear in the river
  • Washing your synthetic clothes means micro-plastics end up in the river
  • And of course, there are many other polluters. Such as the companies that flush their wastewater into the river. Sometimes the consequence is just a rising temperature, but also that changes the environment for fish and plants
  • And regular farming causes excess fertilizer (nitrogen, phosphate not used by the plant) and pesticides to flush into the river.

I’m not saying that the citizen scientists can detect all of this. Lots of stuff is only detected by the water-purification installations further downstream. And even when they detect pollutants, not all can be removed.

So, in the end, we are drinking micro-plastics and chemicals…

Transition Economy

In sustainability, one rule is key. Start at the source by doing it right. It’s always more trouble filtering stuff out than not polluting in the first place.

"Rivers can only be drinkable when all actions and relations in an entire watershed contribute."

— Li An Phoa

What does this have to do with a transition to a different economy?

The Code River through Jogjakarta, Indonesia / Desiree Driesenaar

More and more economists are saying that we can have a different, resilient, and non-polluting economy if we take local bioregions as a starting point. In the ReGeneration movement, this economic way of thinking has a home.

  • We can unleash the abundance of nature again by farming food and other material resources in a regenerative way. We can achieve abundant yields without chemicals if we just build up healthy, living soil
  • We can design our waste streams in such a way that we can reuse them for another production process
  • We can focus on basic needs and be as self-sufficient as possible with smaller, non-polluting production processes
  • The business cases can be resilient by using synergy instead of economies of scale. They can create value, upon value, upon value and products can still be affordable
  • If money is very active in a region, going round and round, the economy will flourish
  • And it will be an economy supporting real-life instead of speculation. It will create well-being for all species

Li An also inspired a Dutch bank, writing a report about risks being in control. Drinkable Rivers being the perfect economic indicator for healthy societies. Much better than GDP and other growth indicators. We need to focus on qualitative growth from now on.

My motto fits well:

"Let’s restore ecosystems and learn as humans how to live within planetary boundaries"

— Desiree Driesenaar

One American economist who understands this very well is Della Duncan. She hosts the Upstream podcast and interviews many economists with a transitional view. It can be done. We just need to want it badly enough…

Change Across Borders

One river, one economy. Going over country boundaries. Making human interaction visible. Inspiring the people living in the communities alongside this river.

It might sound Utopian. But Li An is doing it. She walked the full 1,061 km of the river Meuse in 2018, attracting a bucket-load of attention. And many adult and child companions walked with her for parts of her journey.

Journalists, mothers, mayors, children, entrepreneurs, students. In short: people from all walks of life heard her stories about rivers and water. They had fun going into the river. They measured and were shocked by what they found. Many articles, social media stories, and even a television series did the rest. She became renowned along the way.

The salmons in the rivers jump for joy!

Here’s an English language example of one of her articles in the magazine of the Dutch National Water Authority.

“More than 50,000(!) substances seep into our environment every day, some of them ending up in our drinking water. For example, at least 140,000 kilos of medicine residues (not even including metformin, a treatment for diabetes) are found in the river Maas every year.”

— Li An Phoa

And in October 2019, she and 11 French, Belgian and Dutch mayors signed ‘Mayors for a Drinkable Meuse’. It’s a declaration about learning together and working towards a drinkable river together.

Across borders. It’s possible…

The next thing will be a book she’s writing now, including theories I mention here like Lovelock’s and many more.

Chapeau, Li An! I couldn’t envision such success when we were rehearsing for your TEDx Venlo talk next to the Meuse. But you did it. You do it every day. And this story might inspire others to follow in your footsteps.

Become a pilgrim activist and shake the world awake with stories and active fun!

And for my Asian readers, here is an extra piece of knowledge about the importance of healthy rivers:

“These river basins support the water, food, and energy needs of almost two billion people.”

— National Geographic

Music, Hardship and Romantic Love

So much about rivers and economies. Let’s end this story with the song by Bruce Springsteen. So we remember economic hardship and romantic love by the river. Now knowing that a better economy is within our grasp…

Thank you, Mike, for adding your wise energy to my words on water.

If you want to connect, you can find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or my website. Or somewhere in The Netherlands, Belgium, or France. My feet in the river, connecting to the Meuse…

Thank you for taking the time to read our article on drinkable rivers. We'd love to hear your feedback in the comments section below.

Share this post!

Desiree is an entrepreneur and top writer on Medium for sustainability and climate change. She has 25+ years of experience in business management and is a regular contributor to The Blue Economy. Passionate about systemic solutions, Desiree actively collaborates with like-minded individuals.
Desiree Driesenaar