Magazine article New Internationalist

Rivers: The Facts

Magazine article New Internationalist

Rivers: The Facts

Article excerpt

For centuries the great river systems of the South have watered the fields, put fish on the table and acted as avenues of communication with the outside world. Their importance gives them a crucial place in the cosmology of myth and religion. But now rampant industrialism has brought competing demands that threaten both traditional ways of life and the river eco-systems themselves.

The Amazon

ECO-SYSTEM: The largest river in the world in volume of water and drainage area and one of the world's widest, varying between 6 and 10 kms. Originating in Peru, it carries 1,000 million tons of sediment a year into the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil and the patch of brown at its mouth can be seen darkening the South Atlantic in satellite photos. Vast reaches of the Amazon basin are still essentially unmapped and little-known.

THREATS: Massive logging campaigns have dramatically increased erosion and caused international concern that rainforest destruction will contribute to ozone depletion and global warming. While the slow-flowing Amazon has been saved from dam construction, Brazil's official 'Plan 2010' envisages 80 dams on its tributaries. Dams like the Balbina on the Vartna are flooding arable lands, uprooting inhabitants and adding to rainforest destruction. Watershed stability is threatened by clear-cutting for cattle rearing.(f.4)

The Nile

ECO-SYSTEM: The longest river in the world. The Blue Nile rises in the Ethiopian highlands and the White Nile flows out of Lake Victoria through the tropical plains of Southern Sudan and the great Sudd swamps. They join together just north of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum and their combined flow survives the arid journey through the Nubian and Arabian deserts to the Mediterranean. Almost all Egyptians live clustered close to the Nile's banks.

THREATS: The Aswan High Dam--one of the world's largest--has proved a mixed blessing. One gallon in five of the Nile's water evaporates from Lake Nasser behind the dam. Lack of silt and improper drainage in downstream fields means serious problems with water-logging and salination. Dependable water supplies mean new agricultural production but often for thirsty export crops like cotton. Sea erosion and lack of silt have reduced the Nile's fertile delta and the river is now a mere trickle at its mouth.

The Yangtze

ECO-SYSTEM: Known as the 'Long River' or 'The River of Golden Sand', the Yangtze is the longest river in Asia. It rises in the Tanglha mountains very near Tibet and flows through Szechwan and Hunan to enter the Yellow Sea near Shanghai. Some of its 600 million annual tons of mud and silt, gets deposited on its fertile delta and Chongming Island at the river's mouth. The Yangtze has 700 tributaries and its drainage basin covers 20% of China's total land area.(f.6) One in 13 people on the planet live in its basin.

THREATS: The Yangtze's dangerous floods have drowned 300,000 people this century alone. For centuries a system of dikes held back floods--some as ancient as the eighth century are still in working order. The Three Gorges Dam will be the world's biggest and is projected to control flooding and provide energy-inefficient Chinese factories with hydro-power. It will cost $20 billion, take 20 years to build and flood a million people from their homes. Some 300,000 farmers will lose their land and controversies rage on the dam's effectiveness in controlling floods and long-term social and ecological costs.

The Ganges

ECO-SYSTEM: The Ganges rises in the Himalayan glaciers in the mountainous region of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. …

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