First and foremost, a river, as defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a natural stream of water of usually considerable volume”. And often the case seen throughout history, they had major roles in the birth of civilisations; from the great and famous Egyptian civilisation, starting when it was unified around 3100 B.C. to its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., that developed with the help of the Nile to the Chinese civilisation that sprung forth from the “the Mother River”/”the Cradle of the Chinese civilization” the Yellow River. Simply, rivers aided in agricultural pursuits and since many people back in those days were agriculturally inclined folks, it just fit perfectly.
The significance of the river
Some very interesting legends have arisen regarding rivers. One of the more popular myths in Ancient Egypt, and one that also has varying accounts as old myths often do, was that of Osiris being ripped into pieces by his jealous and volatile younger brother Set, right after tricking him into laying in a coffin. There was a whole movie about this specific legend regarding Horus avenging his father Osiris back in 2016. The movie was “Gods of Egypt”, if I recall correctly.
Anyway, in the legend, Isis, Osiris’ wife (definitely NOT the infamous terrorist group in the Middle East), picked up all 36 pieces of him and put him back together, but because she couldn’t find the rest of him, including his penis, he was less than alive. So this made him the Lord of the Afterlife instead of being what he was before – the king of all the living, having been the successor of his father Ra. But the point is, because of what had happened, with his penis having been dropped into the river and eaten by a crocodile, the river became a symbol of fertility, which is very true to its nature as the origin point of most civilisations, giving life to the people on land.
As it has been said, the Nile was equated with life: when the Nile flooded, it brought prosperity and fertility to the life surrounding it, but if it didn’t rise enough, famine would take over. If it rose too much, floods abound and people would lose their homes (which were often made from clay).
While nurturing to the people living near it as a mother would be to her children, the river’s duality also exhibits an entity capable of great destruction.
In Chinese folklore, He Bo was the “Earl of the Yellow River” an ancient deity who was once a mortal human, but was pitied by the Celestial Emperor when he drowned in the river, so he turned him into a water god in the shape of a white dragon. In some other accounts, he was a fish with a human face.
Myths and folklores, y’know. They’re never really clear…
At one point in time, he was very violent with his management of the Yellow River, many devastating floods, and so he lost his left eye due to the brilliant aim of this famous archer named Hou Yi. Point is, offerings were regularly brought to the Lord of the Yellow River and his wife so as to appease the floods. Or for the souls of the people that had drowned in the floods as well.
In these two examples, it can be perfectly seen how people of old saw rivers as both bearers of great bounty or the wrathful vengeance from the gods on wrong deeds done.
Cause of river pollution
But let’s get back to reality.
During the Industrial Revolution that began in Britain in the late 1700 by producing manufacture products in homes using hand tools or basic machines. As these industries are usually built near rivers or lakes, the waste products from the industries are released into them. And as more people migrated to large industrial cities, the more densely populated cities became. Now, during this time, methods for human and animal waste disposal were quite primitive. Some did have drainage systems, but they just weren’t sanitary enough.
A third of households contained no latrines in Manchester at the time and the infrastructures that do would be collect in cesspits under the buildings and, more often than not, drained into rivers. These very rivers were also the source of drinking water, which led to people becoming ill. London is a great example of this. Sewage draining was often leaked into the River Thames, even though it was a major drinking source for the people of London. This led to a Cholera Epidemic and the Great Stink in July and August 1858 during which the hot weather worsened the smell of untreated human and industrial waste that was on the banks of the River Thames.
In the case of the Thames, it was considered biologically dead for many years because of these events.
The exact number of how many rivers there are in the world is hard to pinpoint, but it’s safest to say that there are thousands of rivers, both major and minor, with the longest river being that of the Amazon River, running a course of approximately 6,992 km.
But all these rivers are facing a crisis – a man-made crisis. River pollution is becoming a common factor among many of them. Some are fortunate, however, for being treated with utmost care.
Causes of River Pollution
What, then, are the causes of river pollution, you ask? Rapid growth in industrialization, with their liquid waste being dumped into rivers. Air is also polluted due to industrialization, which leads to acid rain. Some agricultural practices wherein chemical fertilisers and pesticides are used also contribute to river pollution through runoffs, as rainwater drains these chemicals into rivers. Domestic wastage, wherein rivers suffer the brunt of household garbage, and as populations grow with no education on river cleanliness, they will continue to dump into rivers.
Heavy metals like cadmium, lead, nickel, and zinc can wash off into streams that lead to rivers from ore-smelting industries where they’re being mined and processed.
All these have just turned rivers into sewage carrying drains that is bringing carnage to our wildlife, which is pretty shameful to have done to an element of nature known for its grace, tranquillity, and life-sustaining properties.
What are the most polluted rivers?
According to HelpSaveNature.com, the following are three of the top 10 most polluted rivers in the world:
- Marilao River, Philippines
- Hazardous non-recyclable objects like plastic bottles and rubber slippers are normally found floating on it.
- All sorts of toxic industrial waste products are dumped into the river each day.
- Household garbage is also discarded in astonishing quantities.
- Yellow River, China
- 2nd longest river in Asia and 6th longest in the world
- Once considered the cradle of Chinese civilization and main source of drinking water, but now 1/3 of it is unusable.
- About 4.29 billion tons of industrial waste and sewage was discharged into it in 1996.
- The river water also turned red of late in Lanzhou City due to some unidentified contaminant from a local industry
- Ganges River, India
- Considered the holiest river in Hinduism.
- Ranked one of the five most polluted rivers in 2007.
- The pollutants range from toxic industrial waste to sewage to plastics and innumerable religious offerings made to the river each day.
- People bathe in the ‘holy’ waters, wash their clothes, cook on its banks, and dispatch dead bodies.
- According to a recent study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the Ganges is so full of toxic pollutants that people staying close to its banks are more susceptible to cancer than anywhere else in India.
Any noteworthy successful cleaning operations?
In 1957, the Natural History Museum declared the Thames biologically dead. But in recent years, it has made a turn from the worst, with some living organisms now found within, living their lives. In 1960s onward, when London’s sewage system was slowly being improved was there any noticeable change for the river. There are now 125 species of fish in the Thames, which is more than almost none in the 1950s.
Between the 1970s and 1980s, environmental awareness increased and more people became concerned over runoffs that contained pesticides and fertilizers. Regulations tightened and this is known to be one of the factors that has aided in improving the Thames’ conditions.
Chris Coode, the deputy chief executive of Thames21, a charity dedicated to improving London’s waterways, has even said he is most excited about the return of the sea lampreys.
“They’re ancient, jawless, eel-like creatures that latch onto the sides of larger fish and suck their juices out. They are very sensitive to pollution.”
New technology that’s helped improve river pollution conditions?
New tech has been developed in recent years to clean water in general and these technologies are quite applicable in river terms.
As CNN Tech reported, moss can be used as a water treatment method. David Knighton was on a return flight from Europe a few years back and was reading an article on how injured WWI soldiers who had their wounds staunched with sphagnum moss had higher survival rates than those that used cotton. Being a retired surgeon (from the Minneapolis-area), he applied his medical knowledge and researched in old medical journals to confirm his theory that moss had antibacterial properties. Now, he’s the CEO of Creative Water Solutions, and they use a variety of moss to purify water. They package moss for residential swimming pools and spas, and they also crated a ton of moss for larger industrial applications. With cleaner water at these levels, the water that may end up getting dumped will also be cleaner.
“As with any disruptive technology, sales take a while because people just don’t believe you,” he said, as their sales growing by 30-40% every year, with their tech employed by more industrial facilities and residential pools.
There’s also another tech called the PhyloChip that helps pinpoint sources of water contamination. It is a device that’s the size of a credit card, and is capable of detecting the presence of more than 60,000 species of bacteria and archaea. Plus this method has been found to be more sensitive than conventional methods at assessing health risks. It has successfully detected contamination in the Russian River watershed, which came from human sources close to areas where communities rely on aging septic tanks.
This method doesn’t distinguish between sources though. The bacteria could have come from humans, cows, ducks, sewage, or even decaying vegetation. However, it has had quite a success story in terms of where it’s been applied.
The PhyloChip, which was developed by Andersen and several other Berkeley Lab scientists, has been used for “a number of medical, agricultural, and environmental purposes, including understanding air pollution, the ecology of coral reefs, and environmental conditions of the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill. With 1 million probes, it has identified microbes based on variations of a specific gene, with no culturing needed.”
They are now working closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for “next generation compliance.” Its goal is to develop a method that’s downsized from what the PhyloChip is capable of for universal application in any location and by non-experts.
How can the clean state of rivers be maintained?
As prepared by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, these are some simple and common-sensical things they’ve said that would maintain river health:
- Use mulch and vegetation to keep soil from washing away.
- Sweep or rake grass and leaves away from street curbs.
- Mulch and compost grass clippings and leaves.
- Keep paved surfaces to a minimum.
- Capture water runoff with a rain garden and rain barrels.
- Wash your car on the grass, where the water will get filtered.
- Keep chemicals away from storm drains.
- Collect your pet’s waste.
- Aim your rain-gutter downspouts onto grass.
9 tips for keeping our lakes and rivers clean. (2017, May 18). Retrieved from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency: https://www.pca.state.mn.us/featured/9-tips-keeping-our-lakes-and-rivers-clean
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Theobald, U. (2012, January 23). He Bo 河伯, the Earl of the Yellow River. Retrieved from China Knowledge.de: An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art: http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Myth/personshebo.html
Wise, W. (2018). Substances Causing Pollution in Rivers . Retrieved from Water Wise: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://www.waterwise.co.za/water/environment/substances.html&num=1&strip=1&vwsrc=0
World’s Top 10 Most Polluted Rivers: The Names Will Scare You. (2018). Retrieved from HelpSaveNature: https://helpsavenature.com/top-ten-most-polluted-rivers-of-world