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:

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