Rivers: what do they mean to you? Are they just something boring you learn about in geography at school? For many people the answer is probably yes, but anyone who has ever lived beside one and gone for walks along its bank, swum in it, gone fishing, taken a boat or just looked down on it from a bridge, knows differently. Rivers are magic. Wouldn't you so much prefer to be right now gazing out over one instead of looking at your computer screen?
Take the names. Say each out loud, roll it round your tongue, listen to the sound of it and let your mind conjure up what it will. The Seine, the Rio Grande, the Tigris, the Mekong.... What images do they evoke? What legends and mystery? What promise of romance and adventure? How have they inspired our literature?
"The great grey green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees" *
What do you know about the quest for the source of the Nile? Who was David Livingstone? Close your eyes and picture feluccas, temples and pyramids. Baby Moses in the bulrushes. Imagine yourself on a paddle steamer on The Mississippi, sailing down to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico with jazz and blues and slavery in the air. Wave as you pass Huckleberry Finn fishing on a sandbank. Lean over the rail and watch the wake glittering…
Moon River, wider than a mile
I’m crossing you in style some day
Oh dream maker, you heart breaker
Wherever you’re going I’m going your way……**
Shoot up to space and look down at The Amazon snaking through the jungle. Zoom back in close up to see freshwater dolphins, piranhas, and anacondas. Then switch over to the Congo. Not the longest but the largest river in Africa. Navigable from Kinshasa to Kisangani, the only link between these two cities, often severed because of war. Recently river traffic has resumed but for how long? Surrounded by green gloom, pygmies and forest elephants, habitats supporting the greatest diversity of life on the planet. And the inevitable waterway to the Heart of Darkness.
What images! And what despair at the apparently unstoppable destruction of it all!
The analogy of streams, rivers and their tributaries as the veins and arteries of the earth is not inappropriate. They are indeed the "lifeblood" of the world. Each river is part of a huge eco system. Major ones have catchment areas the size of half a continent. They are the natural habitat of zillions of animals, fish, insects, birds, plants and bacteria. Plus of course the greatest enemy to all of these - us.
Nearly every river in the world is under threat from humans. Rivers in Europe, Asia and North America are polluted and support very little life, though some admittedly have been cleaned up a bit. Salmon are now seen once again in the Thames, which not so long ago was basically London's great sewer to the sea.
In Africa, much of Asia and South America the greatest threat to rivers is deforestation. Vegetation acts like a sponge. It absorbs the rain and lets it out drop by drop. This either permeates the earth to form valuable underground reservoirs, or trickles down to form streams that merge into rivers. When people cut down trees you can imagine what happens. The entire catchment area turns into a desert and the river literally dries up and disappears. When rain does occasionally fall it briefly resumes its existence as the water rushes in a great flood back down to the sea, carrying with it huge amounts of top soil and causing severe erosion, benefiting no one.
Thus, to take just one example, cutting trees in mountainous Nepal kills people in low-lying Bangladesh on a regular basis.
When a river dies so does the entire eco system. Plants, fish, birds and animals, even people lose their habitat and disappear. It is a disaster on an unimaginable scale, comparable to the worst nuclear war. The Sabi River in Zimbabwe (Rio Save in Mozambique) was once so wide and uncrossable all year round that a huge bridge, it was decided, was needed. The engineer who designed Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia was engaged and the result was an almost identical steel suspension bridge, very impressive in the middle of Africa. Birchenough Bridge now spans a wide sandy waterless riverbed. It looks like its famous twin plonked in the middle of the Sahara. A paradise teeming with hippos and crocodiles has vanished. All that is left are poverty stricken people and goats.
Imagine if all the money spent on weapons, new airports, football stadiums, motorways and presidents’ palaces was redirected to helping people like that manage their resources properly! But no - we remain hell bent on self-destruction, which we call "development".
We have known for years that the problems large dams cause far outweigh the advantages. Dams may provide a good source of hydroelectric power but the damage they do to the ecosystem of the river is immeasurable. The Aswan Dam on the Nile is a good example. Before it was built the Nile regularly flooded, depositing rich silt along its banks, which then provided fertile soil for agriculture when it subsided. Now, because of the dam, the water level is controlled all year round and this does not happen. People resort to artificial fertilisers for their crops. These in turn get back into the river and pollute it. Before the dam was built there was a flourishing sardine industry in the Nile Delta, where it flows into the Mediterranean. The sardines fed on all the rich food brought down by the river. Now that industry no longer exists, along with the sardines and all the other marine life that once thrived there. And there are similar cases all over the world.
Local people are always the ones with the most to lose, and the least power to do anything about these enormous projects. When the Kariba dam was built in the 1950's the Batonka, who lived along the Zambesi, were moved to a dry, barren place where they had to change from being fishermen to farmers. They lost their entire livelihood, way of life and culture and have virtually ceased to exist as a tribe. Their descendants however still remember the terrible curse that Nyaminyami the River God put on the dam. And they wait for the day when Nyaminyami will rise again to destroy it, causing an earthquake and a flood of biblical proportions, wiping out the whole of modern Zimbabwe (and poor Mozambique which has the misfortune to lie downstream).
Rivers can unite or divide people and countries in many ways, and there are often severe tensions between countries which share a river. When the Ataturk Dam was built on the Euphrates in Turkey it immediately raised fears downstream in Syria and Iraq for their water supply. Similar tensions exist between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the Nile and politicians shamelessly exploit the situation for their own purposes. Yet these countries have to co-operate or die. There are predictions of wars over water in the future. That may very well happen, but even the winners of those wars will be losers when the water they have fought so hard over dries up completely.
Water is life. We need to think about every drop we use, and the consequences of every single thing we do that may endanger it. Do you really have to use detergent to wash your clothes? Ordinary biodegradable soap may not make your shirts really white but they will be perfectly clean. Just not dazzling white. Can't you wear some other colour? The state of our rivers reflects not only the state of our entire planet but the state of our states of mind. If rivers are sick it is because we are mentally so.
* quote from Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories.
** “Moon River” from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Music by Henry Mancini, lyrics by Johnny Mercer.