Photograph by Frans Lanting
Rivers and their tributaries are the veins of the planet, pumping freshwater to wetlands and lakes and out to sea. They flush nutrients through aquatic ecosystems, keeping thousands of species alive, and help sustain fisheries worth billions of dollars.
Rivers are also the lifeblood of human civilizations. They supply water to cities, farms, and factories. Rivers carve shipping routes around the globe, and provide us with food, recreation, and energy. Hydroelectric plants built from bank to bank harness the power of water and convert it to electricity.
But rivers are also often the endpoint for much of our industrial and urban pollution and runoff. When it rains, chemical fertilizer and animal waste peppering residential areas and agricultural lands is swept into local streams, rivers, and other bodies of water. The result: polluted drinking water sources and the decline of aquatic species, in addition to coastal dead zones caused by fertilizer and sewage overload.
Over the course of human history, waterways have been manipulated for irrigation, urban development, navigation, and energy. Dams and levees now alter their flow, interrupting natural fluctuations and the breeding and feeding patterns of fish and other river creatures. Technology and engineering have changed the course of nature, and now we are looking for ways to restore flow and function to the planet’s circulatory system.
The Colorado River provides an excellent example of what happens when demand for river water—for cities, industry, energy production, and agriculture—threatens to outpace supply. Learn more with our interactive Colorado River map.
- An unsettling number of large rivers—including the Colorado, Rio Grande, Yellow, Indus, Ganges, Amu Darya, Murray, and Nile—are now so overtapped that they discharge little or no water to the sea for months at a time.
- China is proceeding with a massive $60 billion project to transfer water from the Yangtze River Basin in the south to the water-short north. If completed it would be the largest construction project on Earth and would transfer 1.5 trillion cubic feet (41.3 billion cubic meters) of water per year—a volume equal to half that of the Nile River.
- After enduring 19 flood episodes between 1961 and 1997, Napa, California, opted to restore the Napa River floodplain for $366 million, instead of the more conventional flood-control strategy of channelizing and building levees.
Did You Know?84 percent of the Nile’s flow originates in Ethiopia, while the country faces famine due to drought. (At 4,132 miles, or 6,650 km, the Nile is Earth's longest river.)
More About Rivers
After an exhaustive search, an explorer finds one of the elusive giant stingrays—perhaps the largest freshwater fish—near Bangkok, Thailand. And then it gives birth!
National Geographic magazine looks at the revitalization of the mighty Klamath River in the western U.S. and watches decades of political, environmental, and cultural conflict start to unwind.
Rivers run through the heart and soul of countless communities. But, increasingly, they run on human terms rather than on Mother Nature’s.
The National Geographic photographer for the magazine's story on river rituals and holy H2O tells us about his watery journey around the world.
Help Save the Colorado River
You can help restore freshwater ecosystems by pledging to cut your water footprint. For every pledge, Change the Course will restore 1,000 gallons back to the Colorado River.
Pete is a photographer and visual storyteller with an emphasis on freshwater conservation.
Sandra is a leading authority on international freshwater issues and is spearheading our global freshwater efforts.
For more than 15 years, Osvel Hinojosa Huerta has been resurrecting Mexico's Colorado River Delta wetlands.
Water Currents, by Sandra Postel and Others
Arizona's Verde River gets a boost from an innovative partnership.
Farmers in the Verde River Basin employ new technology to benefit a desert environment.
Funny viral video series hopes to get people thinking about the importance of water.