The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.

- Alexander von Humboldt



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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Adventurers & Explorers

Jun 21, 2018

#VanLife Meets Sailing: A Tom and Sofia Update, One Year Later

Tom de Dorlodot is a professional paraglider & paramotoring pilot, partnering with companies such as Red Bull, Volkswagen, Garmin and Patagonia. Sofia is Argentinian, born in Paraguay and the daughter of a diplomat, making her more than familiar with a lifetime of travelling



Sean Verity

We think they’re a pretty cool couple. 

On the 21st June 2017, The Outdoor Journal published a story about Thomas de Dorlodot and Sofia Pineiro. Having come from a VanLife, they were taking to the sea. The plan? To find the most beautiful places on the planet to paraglide, dive and surf.

Meanwhile, they would welcome professional athletes and friends to join them along the way. Their only goal? Seek intensity. We caught up with them last week, to find out how they are getting on.

You can read the original article from last year here, or alternatively check out the Search Projects video below.

TOJ: “Seek Intensity”, that’s the quote you left us with last year as your main objective. How did that go? What were your most ‘intense’ moments? Do you have one in particular you can share with us?

Tom: The year has been hectic. When we left Belgium, we didn’t know it at the time, but we really had no clue about sailing! I couldn’t even hold the helm. I was not even sure that I could take the boat out of the marina. So we left Brussels with a few friends that could sail, a bit better than us, and basically it’s been a year of learning, with all the possible mistakes you could make on a sailboat. But we didn’t break anything, so that’s good. 

Sofia: In the beginning, it was a good and a bad thing for us that we started with the worst conditions. With no experience, and difficult weather to navigate, we had to learn fast and adapt quickly. We developed good processes and reflexes on board. These were good lessons to learn early on.

Benoit Delfosse

Tom: One of the best moments was arriving in the Azores. It is just an incredible place, a very wild island. I remember one moment in particular, when we woke up in the morning and were sailing towards Faial. In a very calm sea, a whale came out of the water just a few meters away from the boat and exhaled, we got so wet. The whale just came out and pshht, we took all the humidity and the water in our faces. It was really crazy, it was the first time we really saw a whale that close to the boat. And then, the next day we saw ten sperm whales, dolphins everywhere, it was just incredible. We love the Azores so much that we actually found a piece of land there in Horta with a small ruin on it; when we finish our travels, we will build a house there.

TOJ: How did this year on a boat differ from the ‘van life’ you were doing before? Have you adjusted? Do you have a preference between one or the other, which and why?

Sofia: The boat life, by far. There are many similarities between the two lifestyles, but not when you compare driving for 10 hours or sailing for 10 hours. When you sail you’re always outside, the air is pure, you leave no harm behind you and it’s just you in the middle of this huge ocean. I think that is quite unique.

Tom: You also don’t need gas, that’s a good thing. Most of the time we have the wind in our sails, and it’s silent, you can just choose your own line in the water. It’s different when you’re on the road and you have to respect speed limits and red lights. The freedom of being able change plans in any moment is an amazing feeling. For example, we were in Dublin yesterday, and then for a moment you consider, “Why not go to England” and BOOM, you cross the sea and you go to England. You cannot replaces this feeling of freedom, knowing that the Azores were only 7 days away, which might look far, but you learn to travel at a different speed.

Tom de Dorlodot

When you walk in the mountains, ski, or cycle through a country, you have the time to see things, to meet people. It’s the same with a boat, because you don’t do long distances but everyday you’re in a different place. There’s also the sporty side to it; taking care of a 12-meter sailboat when in heavy conditions can be challenging, but very exciting.

Sofia: It’s common to experience strange feelings too, you reach land after a couple of days without being in a city, and you feel like an alien! You need a few hours to re-adapt and kind of act “normal” again.

Yann Verstraeten

Tom: The boat is actually a very good way to disconnect. It’s a bit like high altitudes in the mountains. You leave the coast, and you’re out there by yourself. The higher in the mountains you travel, the less people you meet. We have a lot of time to read, and we don’t need a watch or clock; we eat when we’re hungry, we sleep when we’re tired. Of course, it also comes with a few downsides. We have to take care of the boat, and the pictures you see on Instagram is the “glossy part”, but also we have problems, the boat took water a few times, we broke things.

“The good thing is that when you leave land, you only think about one thing: to come back. And when you’re back, you only think about leaving again.”

You always want to be on the move, and it’s great because when you come back to the land you get a good shower again, you appreciate the simple things. The restaurants, nice food, and sitting on a bench that doesn’t move around.

TOJ: How is the boat? and let’s talk about the SEARCH project.

Tom: The boat is doing really well. We expected to have a few problems, because it was out of the water for 7 years and we worked for 8 months to fix it. Now it’s in super good shape, everything is fine so we think it’s the perfect tool for moving efficiently from one place to the other.

Benoit Delfosse

Regarding the SEARCH project, it’s a very large search. The goal is to try to find the best places in the world to fly, we’ve encountered many places and made a good start. From the moment we landed in Gran Canaria (Canary Islands) and talked to the local pilots, we couldn’t stop grinning.

“One of the guys said that no one had crossed the island from one side to the other, they thought it was impossible. 2 days later, we did it.”

For us, it’s pretty cool to be able to arrive by boat, with the gliders, take them out and make a flight that local people have been dreaming about doing for years. It was a great moment. However, we’re not only looking for flying places, we’re also looking to continue to learn and to get to know new people.

Sofia: Gliding is taking a new dimension, there’s the sport side of it, but also the discovery when you find a new place, with a new culture. We also have the mission to not only show the beauty of our planet to the world. Having seen the bad things about the environment and pollution, we want to convey these findings to others. Try to expand the community awareness, for example by having a group of scientists coming onboard.

Benoit Delfosse

Tom: At the end of the day, it’s all about sharing. We are happy to invite people onboard, we had Simon Charrière, who is a professional skier, sponsored by Patagonia, recently. We had Gaetan Doligez who is an alpinist. These guys come onboard and they share their stories, and then they touch their own community. We now feel that we have more responsibility to share what we see, not only the dreamy part, but also what we think is wrong. That’s the direction of our focus for the next month.

TOJ:  With regards to the environment, climate change, etc, you’ve been in contact with it every day, from flying to diving, and everything in between. Did you have any moments where you said “wow, the climate is really changing”

Tom: One of our main concerns is plastic in the ocean. Unlike the CO2 emissions, this is a kind of pollution that you can see, that you can witness. The other day, whilst we were in the Azores, we saw seven big sea turtles. When you get close to them they get scared and usually go under water, but one was chewing a piece of white plastic, because it looked like jellyfish. She wouldn’t let it go and looked a bit sick. We don’t really realise how bad it is for the environment and we’ve been throwing plastic in the ocean for many years now. It’s difficult to acknowledge, because it’s difficult to count all the fish in the water; but when we speak with the locals and fishermen that have been sailing for 40 years, they all reach the same conclusion: we’ve reached a limit. We’ve gone too far and we now need to realise it.

Tom de Dorlodot

As a paraglider I’m super concerned about the weather, I have to look for stability and good weather to fly. When you speak with the local pilots, for example in the Canary Islands, where they started flying over 25 years ago, they say “we used to have better days, more stable conditions”. Everyone tends to say that everything is more extreme now. It moves you. When you’re connected to nature every day, it’s different then when you’re living in a city.

“You eat your sandwich wrapped in plastic and it looks normal, but if you live on the sea and you see a piece of plastic every 40 meters, you realise there is something wrong.”

Sofia: Now we have an opportunity to change habits. For example, when we go to the supermarket, we can only take the vegetable that are not wrapped in plastic. Our amount of waste has beed reduced drastically.

Tom de Dorlodot

Tom: I wish we could catch more fish, but sometimes it feels like the sea is empty. We didn’t manage to catch a single fish from the Azores to here (Ireland). We have good techniques, but we caught nothing. Then you come to Ireland, and you see massive boats dragging the ocean and taking tons of fish out of the water each day. We are really trying to make an effort on this side and I think it’s going to get better, but sometimes it’s impossible: you go to the supermarket and it’s plastic everywhere, everything is wrapped into plastic. I think now the consumer has the power to change this, by not buying things wrapped into plastic, and this can make a difference.

Benoit Delfosse

TOJ: You’ve embraced “a life with less” philosophy with regards to materialism, what have you found is really indispensable? What did you think was going to be essential, but actually wasn’t?

Tom: I think that nothing is essential at the end of the day. You need good food, healthy food, you need to catch a fish now and then.

“Fashion:”we are not into it, we try to just work with responsible brands…”

We are in a little bubble, for sure, but we’re not trying to live outside society, we are just on another page now. This kind of trip changes you, for sure.

TOJ: Do you receive clothing throughout the year, through your sponsors, or you just have a set of clothes from a year ago that you re-use endlessly?

Tom: We work with Patagonia and they have a “worn-wear” philosophy. You have to use your clothing until they are completely destroyed, and even then we can still fix it. We like it when your jacket looks used, and they want you to use it until the very end. Now we have a complete set, and I don’t think we will need a new one from the new collection. If we do, our old set of clothes will go to Pakistan, to the high-altitude porters that will need it more than us. We are happy to work with Patagonia who is trying to be eco-responsible in a way.

TOJ: One last thing about last year: scariest moment?

Tom: At the beginning when we left the Baleares and we went to Gibraltar, we got stuck in a thunderstorm in the middle of the sea. We took the sails out, and for 2 hours we were fighting in really heavy conditions, massive waves, with thunder all around us. At every lightning strike you think “ok, the next one is for me”. If it strikes you or your boat, you sink pretty fast. That was super scary. But we stayed focused, we stayed calm.

“It’s a very big lesson of humility, being on the ocean out there, you feel like you’re nothing. It’s impressive.”

TOJ: What’s next?

Tom: We are going to Scotland next week. From Scotland, further North, to the Shetland Island, and from there we cross to Norway. We think we will be there end of July, and we will spend a month / a month and a half in Norway; and then back down to Belgium. I have to go to Turkey for another expedition, but with 4x4s this time, with the SEARCH project team. We have 2 Amaroks (VW pick up) because Horacio is also sponsored by VW now, and with the roof-tents, a cameraman plus the photographer (John Stapels) we will do a kind of “old school” SEARCH project. Dirt bags, small budget, searching for places to fly. I think Turkey has lots of potential. Then we take the boat back to the Canary Islands, and from there we cross the Atlantic.

You can follow Search Projects on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

You can find Tom on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

You can find Sofia on Instagram.

Find your own sustainable paragliding or sailing trip on OutdoorVoyage.com

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