July 25, 2022
Carving canyons, sustaining communities, feeding wildlife, and shaping history: rivers are integral to life on our planet. Despite their essential role, these rushing waterways make up just under half a percent of all surface freshwater on the planet. Rivers are rare, and they’re a prize worth fighting for.
What Rivers Give Us
Rivers are vastly important. They sustain our lakes, wetlands, and forests; they provide hydroelectric power and feed reservoirs, on which humans depend for daily life. Rivers keep the world turning as we know it, offering visible—and invisible—benefits:
- Climate sinks. Rivers are often referred to as the veins or arteries of our planet. They flush carbon to the oceans like a circulatory system, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide—and the heat it traps—in the atmosphere. It’s estimated that Earth’s rivers transport 200 million tons of carbon to the ocean every year.
- Biodiversity. Countless species depend on riparian environments—rivers feed lakes, floodplains, marshes, and wetlands. Rivers sit at the center of the web of life, carrying nutrients across ecosystems and sustaining wildlife far beyond their watery paths.
- Local and global economies. Historic thruways for transportation and trade, rivers have given birth to cities and civilizations. Today, rivers are also tourism juggernauts. A study by Conservation Science Partners found that watersheds with a low density of rivers result in an annual $2.2 million in outdoor recreation spending. Those with a high density of rivers generate a staggering $17.8 million, an increase of 717%.
- Cultural significance. Cross the River Thames, stand on the Seine’s Pont Neuf, boat along the Mississippi Delta or the Putumayo—rivers play iconic roles across history and continents, liquid threads connecting us all.
Threats to Rivers
Unfortunately, human activity has the potential to cause great harm to these essential waterways:
- Dams. 60% of the world’s major rivers have been dammed, with remaining free-flowing rivers concentrated largely in the Amazon and Congo basins. The structures don’t just alter watersheds: Dams result in increased evaporation, change weather patterns, dry up carbon sinks, prevent migrations, erode riverbeds, emit greenhouse gasses, and often displace Indigenous communities.
- Pollution. Of all the miles of rivers and streams in the United States, 50% have been classified as “impaired” due to pollutants. That means they’re not safe for us—be it drinking, swimming, or recreation—and they’re not safe for wildlife.
- Water use and climate change. The deltas of rivers like the Colorado, Rio Grande, and the Yellow River in China choke with dust and sand. With climate change and overuse, our most-utilized rivers often fail to reach the sea.
Goldman Prize winners like Prigi Arisandi (Indonesia, 2011) are on a mission to call attention to the threats facing our rivers. The environmental activist has worked for decades to clean up Indonesia’s waterways, including his backyard Surabaya River, which provides drinking water for some 3 million people.
Maida Bilal (Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2021) ran a year-and-a-half human blockade—made up largely of women—that prevented two proposed dams on the Kruščica River, one of the last free-flowing rivers in Europe. Similarly, Berta Cáceres (Honduras, 2015) organized a grassroots, Indigenous-led campaign that successfully stopped Sinohydro, the world’s largest dam builder, from constructing the Agua Zarca Dam on the sacred Gualcarque River.
Working on the Thai borderlands, Niwat Roykaew (Thailand, 2022) protected the Upper Mekong River from a Chinese blasting project that would have had major environmental and economic implications. Like others, Niwat’s victory showcased the power of grassroots organizing to harness public opinion in favor of conservation, forcing the project’s cancellation.
Similar strides are being made in the Western world as we collectively awaken to the dangers rivers are facing. In the United States, 57 dams were removed in 2021; 239 barriers (dams and weirs) were removed in Europe that same year. Thanks to activists like the Prize winners mentioned above, our awareness of the importance of healthy rivers is growing—hopefully in time to save these most-prized lifelines.
About the author
Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer whose work focuses on citizen conservation and public lands. She has been published in National Geographic, Sierra, Lonely Planet, and more.