The Great Rivers

Rivers of all sizes have always beguiled me, captive on the shore, watching their waters flow endlessly past—waters bursting from far-distant sources upstream, rushing inexorably downstream to distant lakes and oceans.

As a boy, I sometimes wished I could float away on their currents to discover what lay beyond my sight.  And just as often, I wanted to journey against their flow, longing to view what those rivers had already seen.

Those daydreams were continually thwarted, however, by my greater desire to be home in time for supper.

The first great river I learned about was the mighty Mississippi, described so lovingly in the first two novels I ever read, written by Mark Twain—Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  I think my first hero was Tom, although I couldn’t imagine getting into the scrapes he did.  But it was Huck—as fine a character as you’ll find in the literary canon—whose presence stayed with me as I morphed into adolescence.

It was the Mississippi, though, that I truly focused on, that immense receiver of waters from its many tributaries—including the Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, and Red Rivers, each collecting water from their own tributaries—draining more than forty percent of the continental USA into the Gulf of Mexico.  In my youthful imagination, it was a river of romance and song, a gateway to the future.

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In time, I came to know of other great rivers, and snippets of their history:

  • the Nile, for example, and the tales of derring-do by British imperial forces at Khartoum that fired my imagination;
  • the Amazon, with its claims of pygmy head-hunters, and Theodore Roosevelt’s near-fatal trek on one of its tributaries, now named for him;
  • the Danube, so blue in my boy’s mind, the inspiration for one of the greatest Strauss waltzes;
  • the Yangtze, summoning images of the mysterious east, and Marco Polo’s exotic adventures;
  • the Ganges, that sacred river emptying into the Bay of Bengal, worshipped by devout Hindus as a goddess;
  • the Zambesi, which tumbles 108m at Victoria Falls, evoking heroic stories of Livingstone and Stanley in the darkest regions of Africa; and
  • the Volga, Europe’s longest river, conjuring romantic visions of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, and their czarist empire at its height.

Given this rich history and my romanticizing of the world’s great rivers, imagine my shock when I read recently about what some of them are doing now to our environment.

According to a study completed in 2017 by the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, and first reported in Environmental Science & Technology, a peer-reviewed, scientific journal covering research in environmental policy, a staggering eight million metric tons of plastic pours into the world’s oceans every year.

Of that amount, several of the world’s great rivers are responsible for up to 2.75 million metric tons.  Ninety-three percent of that volume emanates from ten major rivers, all in Asia and Africa, including some of those mentioned above.  The Yangtze alone dumps as much as 1.5 million metric tons of plastic waste into the Yellow Sea.

Every.  Single.  Year.

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Credit: Amanda Montañez; Source: “Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea,” by Christian Schmidt et al., in Environmental Science & Technology, Vol. 51, No. 21

There are clean-up attempts underway, of course, and new technologies to assist them emerging all the time.  But is it already too late?  With the flow of waste only increasing around the world, can any effort match the magnitude of the task?

The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch has an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of floating plastic, which by the end of last year had coalesced into a field of debris twice the size of Texas.  But that may be just the tip of the waste-berg, so to speak.

Micro-particles from plastics used in consumer products such as disposable bottles, packaging, and textiles have been found beneath the ocean’s surface, even in the Mariana Trench (estimated depth, 11,034 metres below sea level).  These particles are being consumed by animals on the lower end of the food-chain, which in turn are eaten by those higher up the chain—and eventually by humans, the apex predators at the very top.

According to a current World Wildlife Fund study, each of us is now inadvertently consuming about five grams of plastic a week on average, the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic.

The cause of the problem does not lie with our great rivers, of course.  They are simply doing what they have always done—draining and flushing the land surrounding them, carrying the detritus out to sea.  It is the producers, consumers, and disposers of plastics who are at fault.  In a word, us!

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But I must confess, I no longer look at rivers with the same romantic eye I did once upon a long time ago.

We have ruined them.