All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

- JRR Tolkien



Sep 24, 2016

Our Rivers Are Dying and We Need to Act

Two environmental journalists explain the urgency to protect the legacy of our rivers.


The Outdoor Journal

Hermann Hesse in his unforgettable Siddhartha writes, “… the river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and that there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future?”*

Rivers have always mesmerized us. In almost all cultures of the world, rivers hold a special place, binding and linking geography, mythology, history, music, literature, and the culture of a community of a river together. All across, rivers names indicate the awe, love and respect that the society had for them.

Many river people have thought of their own rivers as the mightiest ones in the world! Zambezi, Rio Grande, Parana, Chao Phraya, Mahanadi, Guadalquivir, Mississippi, Sindhu all tend to mean “The Greatest River” or “River as big as the Sea” or “King of Rivers.

River Dibang, threatened by a series of hydropower dams. Photo Courtesy SANDRP

Despite their remarkable impact on our civilization, we know very little about rivers themselves. We study hydrology, hydraulics, water supply, sanitation, etc., but attention to the ecological entity of the river has been woefully inadequate.

The fact that there is no single definition of rivers further complicates our understanding. Here is our attempt at defining it:

“River is a hydrological, geomorphic, ecological, biodiversity rich, landscape level system that serves as key part of freshwater cycle, balancing dynamic equilibrium between rainwater, snow, glaciers, surface water and groundwater and providing significant social, cultural, ecological and economic services to the people and ecosystems in its watershed”.

This does sound a bit complex, but then, a river is a complex and beautiful system which does many things along its course!

One of the most striking writing that significantly enhanced our understanding of rivers was from Michigan Dept of Natural Resources, Michigan, USA (Dec 1997), called: An Introduction to Rivers – The Conceptual Basis for the Michigan Rivers Inventory Project

Excerpt from 'An Introduction to Rivers'
“Most of us would agree that a river is a wonderful place. A soothing spot, with magically running waters. A home to swarming mayflies, fishes, herons, and otters. A place for commerce and industry, as well as recreation and relaxation. Most of us get to know rivers at particular sites: bridges, bends near the road, rapids, and the old swimming hole. Not surprisingly, the perspective of the river as “a place” is embedded in our popular culture and language. Stream, creek, river, brook, ditch, spring, run… we have a lexicon of names for what seem to us to be clearly different kinds of places. The technical literature on river management also largely comes from this perspective of the river as a place… Like the fable of the seven blind men who were each able only to touch and perceive one small part of the elephant, what we perceive at the river bank tends to be heavily biased by our limited vision.”

India’s Fight Over a River

As we write this, two states in India with a population of over 100 million are fighting over a river. The fight is getting fiercer by the day.

None of the states are interested in the river itself, but only its function that is water. But rivers are not only channels of water. They disproportionately support higher biodiversity compared to other ecosystems. At the same time, freshwater biodiversity is witnessing the fastest collapse as compared to other ecosystems. Linked with freshwater biodiversity are livelihoods of billions of people: fisherfolk, riparian farmers, boatmen, estuarine fishermen. Even marine fisheries, which is witnessing a serious stagnation now, depends on the freshwater and nutrients that rivers bring to the seas. Estuaries of rivers serve nurseries for several marine fish too.

The Damming of Rivers

One of the most profound impact that man has on riverine systems is damming. Dams of all shapes, sizes and functions now block the arteries of the planet. Of the world’s 177 largest rivers, only one-third are free flowing, and just 21 rivers longer than 1,000 km retain a direct connection to the sea. Damming has led to species extinctions, loss of prime farmland and forests, social upheaval, loss of clean water supplies, dessicated wetlands, destroyed fisheries and more.

Free-flowing rivers have become so rare that they would be classified as an endangered species if they were considered living things rather than merely support systems for all living things.

In the last half-century or more, the world has seen the number of undammed rivers shrink dramatically. In ecological and cultural terms, the value of these free-flowing rivers is immense and growing, as more and more rivers are being dammed the world over.

The argument about dams or no dams does not lead us anywhere. We need a dispassionate post facto-analysis of the existing dams and compare the costs of these with the benefits they provide. As technologies advance and as we rediscover the merit and beauty in smaller structures, there are several appropriate and cheap solutions to our water supply, agriculture and energy needs.

Parshuram Kund on the River Lohit (tributary of the Brahmaputra river) which will be changed entirely with upstream dams. Photo Courtesy SANDRP

Indian Himalayas, a repository of rich biodiversity and a seismically active zone is now witnessing an onslaught of hydropower dams, pushed by international agencies like World Bank, ADB and agencies from countries like Norway and Germany.

These include some dams which will cause some of the biggest changes in water flow regime that the world has seen so far. For example, if all major hydropower dams in a basin called Siang in a remote corner in the North India get built, the water level fluctuation 25 kms downstream the dam site will be 22 feet every single day! This will sound a death knell for the biodiversity of the river, creatures along the river corridors and unsuspecting communities that live along the rivers. Calling such gigantic life altering structures as green and clean is an irony.

The Importance of Silt

Rivers do not carry only water. Perhaps, an even more important element transported by rivers is silt.

This silt moulds landscapes, provides fertile grounds and most importantly replenishes the delta of a river against the continual eroding motion of the sea. The deltas of great rivers such as the Nile, Mekong, Irrawaddy, Ganges and Brahmaputra belong to the world’s most important rice bowls and population centres. Dams can trap 80 percent of the sediments they receive, which adds up to an estimated 40 cubic kilometers per year. Due to rampant dam building, deltas of rivers like the Chao Phraya, Colorado, Nile, Po, Rhone, Pearl, Yangtze and Yellow show virtually no more addition of sediments.

In South Asia, over the last century, Indus delta sediments have been reduced by more than 94 percent, Ganga-Brahmaputra delta sediments by more than 30 percent, and Narmada delta sediments by 95 percent.

Sea-level rise caused by climate change is further aggravating this loss of deltas.

All is Not Lost

But all is not bleak. Some of the most positive and reassuring initiatives are coming from the communities of the rivers. Across the world, be it in Brazil or in Africa or India or Myanmar, it is the river communities who are fighting to save their rivers. Although a vulnerable group, they are changing the contours of the discussion from the offices of governments and funding agencies to the land of the rivers.

As examples, the Buddhist Monpa communities have stopped dams on the river Tawang. For more than three years riverine communities and peasants from Assam have halted the lower Subansiri Dam. Tribes in Columbia have played a central role in reinstating salmon populations, communities in Mekong are fighting to keep the mighty river flowing.

What we need now is more and more people coming together for our rivers and its creatures. We need more scientists talking is clear and loud voices about what is wrong in killing a river. We need more adventurers showing the world that all is not lost….that reclaiming our rivers is a battle worth fighting.

* For further quotes, see: http://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/river-conversations/

Feature Image: Dan Rea-Dickins kayaking down the Sankh river in Jharkhand in East India. Photo © Dom Burrow

About the Authors

rainer-horig-photo-1114Himanshu Thakkar is the coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) and is an engineer from IIT Mumbai. He played an active part in the Narmada Bachao Andolan and is the Editor of magazine Dams, Rivers and People


parineetaParineeta Dandekar works for South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) and holds Masters in Environmental Sciences and Diploma in Integrated Water Resources Management


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Adventure Travel

Jul 04, 2018

Become the Bear! Tackling Middle Aged Life the Bear Grylls Way.

This story originally featured in a print issue of the Outdoor Journal.



Jamie East

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Bear Grylls is probably one of the most famous adventure celebrities in the world. Aside from all his adventures, Bear also shares his survival skills with anyone ready to pay for it. One such chap was our middle-aged writer Jamie East, who usually preferred watching other people take risks from the safe distance of his television. Until he decided to go out there himself and get dirty.

Well, there’s something liberating about jumping into a freezing, fast-flowing river with all your clothes on. It’s the kind of thing that, as a child, you told yourself you’d do all the time once you were big enough and your parents couldn’t tell you off. Yet staying on the precipice at age 39, all I can think of is, “Is this jumper dry-clean only?”

This is what life does to you. It sucks the adventure from you quicker than a Dyson in a bag of sawdust. Before you know it, you’d rather sleep than live, drive than hike, sink into the sofa than swim.

I suppose this could be classified as bare survival. You exist but don’t live, and I’ve decided enough is enough. What would the 12-year-old Jamie, who got sent home from school for falling down a ravine he thought he could clear in one leap, say to me if he could see the 39-year-old me? “Man up!” probably. “Your clothes are stupid?” most definitely.

Bear Grylls is the man we all aspire to be. Hard as nails on a mountain ledge, soft as grease at home with his kids. The fire in his heart burns brighter than Krypton being destroyed, and he’s harder than a 60-foot working model of optimus Prime made from diamonds. He also embraces the outlook on life we all wish we had time for had those damned IsAs, smart phones and creamy pasta sauces not gotten in the way. Thankfully for those of us with a terminal case of lazy-itis, we can see how the other half live over at the Bear Grylls survival Academy from the bleak Scottish Highlands or the luscious surrey forests in England. Run by Grylls and his team of ex-paratroopers, the survival Academy is an ideal introduction into a world of skills and endurance we think we’ll never need. Be honest; how many of us truly believe that there will come a time when we will be skewering a rat for dinner or navigating a 23,000-acre highland with only the stars to help? But these are skills that used to be second nature to us humans. If there weren’t people like Grylls to show us the way, there are a lot of people around the world who wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale of the time their car broke down in the Australian outback, or when they had to make a snow cave that provided those few vital hours of warmth on a mountaintop. Whether we like it or not, the knowledge could prove life-saving.

A tent set up for participants during the 5-day Survival in the Highlands course in Scotland.
A tent set up for participants during the 5-day Survival in the Highlands course in Scotland.

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The Academy offers several options tailored to your needs. You can opt for a 24-hour experience in Surrey either alone or with a family member older than 10. Although only 10 minutes from the motorway, such is the Surrey countryside that you could be in Montana for all you’d know. The dense forest makes for a real wilderness experience. The deep rivers you’ll be crossing, the rabbits you’ll be gutting, the trees you’ll be stripping to make shelter, and the ravines you’ll be shimmying across really do give you a feeling of being alive. A 20-minute run is considered a “big thing” in my house, so spending days in the real outdoors felt invigorating. I felt alive!

I’m not an all-rounder though. I found some of the requisite skills completely beyond me, navigating by starlight was one. My brain is just not wired to untangle that kind of data.

I used to think I could point out the north star in a heartbeat. Nope. The north star isn’t the brightest one. Nuts.

“The North Star is, in fact, the one perpendicular to blah de blah de blah babble babble wibble waffle.” That’s how that sentence sounded coming from the instructor’s mouth: just a stream of nonsense about ploughs and bears. It doesn’t look like a plough. If it looked like a plough, I’m pretty sure even I could find it. But it doesn’t. It looks like a slightly wavy line of stars that is buried among 200 billion other stars. It makes finding a needle in a haystack look like finding an elephant in an eggcup, so if I’m stuck anywhere in the world (and I mean anywhere: La Rinconanda, the Kerguelen Islands or just past the BP garage near my house) without Google maps or a TomTom, you may as well kiss this writer’s sorry ass goodbye, because I’ll wither away in a puddle of my own dehydrated tears.

Jamie had to eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river and set traps and eat rabbit he skinned with his own bare hands.
Jamie had to eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river and set traps and eat rabbit he skinned with his own bare hands.

But there are things that must have been festering in my subconscious all these years, like a coiled snake ready to unleash, on an unsuspecting world. For instance, I could light a fire that is neither at the end of a cigarette nor underneath a pile of half-frozen burgers. I mean a real fire created by nothing but flint and dried bark. It’s a panic-inducing task, and I’m not ashamed to say it took me nearly 40 minutes. As my instructor, Scott, told me, it’s all in the timing. Put on too much too soon and you’re buggered. Too little too late and, yup, you’re buggered.

Instructions for making a fire without matches or anything a sane human would have within arm’s reach
You need the slightest feathers of bark piled up like Candyfoss. You need your spark. Mine was from the flint on my Rambo knife. The very second that spark takes hold of one of your bark feathers, blow very gently. If all goes well, that will turn into a largish smoldering lump of smoke. If it doesn’t, go back to the beginning. You now need to start throwing on more feathers of bark, a fraction larger than the one before, before moving onto dried-out twigs no thicker than a hair on a baby’s ear. Eight hours later, you have a fire that could singe your eyebrows from 183 m. Well done!
Soon to be survivalists learning how to free rope traverse - a basic zip-line technique that can be used for water crossings and emergency evacuations.
Soon to be survivalists learning how to free rope traverse – a basic zip-line technique that can be used for water crossings and emergency evacuations.

So, if ever I do go missing near the BP garage by my house, just look for the massive fire right next to the petrol station. Well, I may need to think that through a bit more.

The Scottish Highlands course that is offered is similar to this, apart from a few key points. It goes on for five days and takes place in one of the most remote places in Britain. It’ll probably pour down with ice-cold rain for the entire trip, and you’ll have to eat rat and cross a river in your underpants. Apart from that, exactly the same.

Spending time with this team baked common sense into my brain. The lessons easily transform into mundane, everyday life. The buzz phrase of the trip is “Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance.” out in the highlands, this means, “If you don’t prepare well, you will likely starve and die.” At home, this translates to, “Use a tape measure, or your shelf won’t be even.” The sentiment is still the same. Don’t judge me.

You should know what you’re getting into, of course. This is a Bear Grylls branded experience, after all (and all the equipment says as much). You won’t be expected to drink your own body fluids, squeeze drops of moisture out of elephant dung, or decapitate a rattlesnake with the sole of your boot, but you will feel as though you could if you were the last man on Earth. I did eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river, set traps and eat rabbit I skinned with my own bare hands. And do you know what?

I’ve never felt more alive or more connected with the world I selfishly pillage on a daily basis. I’m not alone, either.

People the world over have sought out the Grylls way of life. Upon his return to the US, my fellow survivor Caleb said “my hands are shredded, my nose is stuffed, my throat is raspy and my body is tanked, but I am alive now more than ever. It was everything I hoped for: an empowering learning experience.

Crossing a freezing river in Surrey during the 24 hour family course.
Crossing a freezing river in Surrey during the 24 hour family course.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. After the aching had subsided, and the clothes were washed, the niggling feeling that I was approximately 3 percent more of a man than I was before I began, just wouldn’t leave me. It still hasn’t.

I didn’t imagine that sleeping rough, eating worms and swimming in rivers could possibly have this much of an effect on my psyche, but it really has. I’m not saying I could rescue someone hanging off a cliff, or survive in the jungle for more than a couple of hours. But if you get the chance, breathe in the air, sharpen that stick and venture out into the big, wide world. Just remember to take a compass with you. I swear those stars are out to get you.

Photos by Discovery Channel, Jamie East & The Bear Grylls Survival Academy.

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