Why did all civilizations begin near rivers

Loved, used, dirty. How carelessly people deal with rivers and thereby endanger themselves is explained Brigitte Pilz


Good news in advance. The Styrian Mur won the European River Price in 2014. And this year she was even in the final selection for the International River Price, which is awarded annually in Australia.

About 30 years ago the Mur was one of the dirtiest rivers in Europe. Straightening and regulations had shortened the “waterway” between Graz and the Slovenian border by 15 kilometers. Wastewater from households and industry was discharged into the river untreated, with devastating consequences for the ecosystem in and around the water. In the 1980s, the dismantling and revitalization of the river began. During this time, wastewater disposal received more attention. Side arms, gravel banks, ponds and fish migration aids were created on the Mur, and alluvial forests were revitalized. Flora and fauna have been given a new habitat. The project is financed by municipalities, the state, federal government and the EU.

People like to report on such initiatives, even if the Mur is not a huge river.

Biodiversity hotspots. Rivers and streams are the lifelines of the earth. They are known as biodiversity hotspots. But the ecosystem of our rivers is in danger. Globally, their condition is worrying. Rivers and their floodplains are counted among the most endangered habitats. They are dirty, built up, dismembered. It's not just about biodiversity, animals and plants. Rivers are extremely important to humans. They provide drinking and industrial water, food and building materials. They are transport routes, they are used for agriculture as well as for recreation as well as for cultural and spiritual stimulation.

For example, the Amazon, the largest river on earth, determines the myths of the indigenous communities living by and by the river. A story goes like this: Yacumama, the 60 meter long anaconda, is the mother of all waters and lives in the depths of the Amazon. When it rises from the river, earthquakes occur. It can create dangerous vortices and make explosive noises. Travelers on the river have great respect for her because she can turn into a ghost ship too. The existence of mermaids is considered certain in the Amazon.

First high cultures. A look back into human history shows that the first great civilizations arose on rivers thousands of years ago: in the ancient Orient, the states in Mesopotamia between the Euphrates and the Tigris; in North Africa the Egyptian empires on both sides of the Nile; on the Indian subcontinent, the Harappa culture on the Indus; in East Asia the Chinese empires on the Yellow River and the Yangtze River.

The explanations of science make sense: rivers were the very first transport routes. They regularly stepped over their banks, withdrew again and left behind fertile alluvial land that was suitable as arable land and promoted permanent settlement. Irrigation in periods of drought became necessary and possible with river water. Food surpluses, stockpiling, division of labor, and increasingly organized communities were the foundations of further cultural achievements.

The central importance of the river in everyday life also shaped the religious ideas of these cultures. The Nile was worshiped as a god, and the Ganges is the most sacred river for Hindus to this day.

Cities on rivers. In the centuries that followed, cities were built facing rivers. They could be used to get what you needed for life. The transport of people and goods was becoming more and more complex and in more and more technically sophisticated boats and ships. Rivers delimit, but they also connect.

And people made use of the energy of rivers early on, their driving force first for mills and later for entire industrial plants. In the course of technical and economic upheavals, the use of flowing waters increased and intensified without regard to their overall function for the ecosystem.

Rivers as protection. Sometimes we experience very directly the consequences of our one-dimensional thinking about progress. Rivers are transport routes, so we straighten them, deepen the river bed, enclose it in concrete, build artificial dams, dry floodplains and cultivate them.

We in Central Europe have learned in recent years how important free-flowing waters and their floodplains are for flood protection alone. In Germany there was originally a water expansion area of ​​over 6,000 square kilometers along the Elbe to compensate for the groundwater and the surface water. It has shrunk to 800 square kilometers. It looks similar along the entire Danube river system.

Continuous rain and heavy storms led to a flood disaster along the Elbe, Danube and other rivers in Central Europe in the early summer of 2013, which even exceeded those of 2002. A rethinking is slowly beginning. Among other things, it is important to reconnect floodplain areas to the natural dynamics of a river and to renature rivers.

Risk of climate change. Global warming and extreme weather conditions will increase the risk of flooding in rivers, the UN's World Resources Institute recently warned. It could affect 54 million people worldwide by 2030. The economic damage is estimated at almost 500 billion euros per year, currently it is almost 100 billion. The densely populated countries of Asia are particularly threatened, especially India, ahead of Bangladesh and China. Global warming threatens to melt the glaciers in the Himalayas. In the next 20 to 30 years, this could lead to floods, landslides and deterioration in water quality, especially in the Mekong estuary, according to a report by the Geneva-based Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Dirty river water. We all know that it is almost nowhere advisable to drink river water. For centuries, wastewater from businesses and households has been dumped into streams and rivers. But settlements grew into cities and megacities, small businesses turned into factories, and farms turned into large industrialized farms. Dirty water, toxins and waste of all kinds exceeded the self-cleaning power of rivers. In our latitudes, the construction of sewage treatment plants and the municipal monitoring of wastewater have become established in many places.

It is now safe to swim in the Isar in Munich. The water from all sewage treatment plants has been sterilized there with UV light for several years. The widespread implementation of such an innovative technology is not least a question of money.

Around five billion people, almost 80 percent of the world's population, live in the catchment area of ​​polluted rivers. Water pollution is greatest in human metropolitan areas, often near the mouths of large rivers. Many of the megacities are located on the rivers that the WWF describes as the dirtiest: Shanghai on the Yangtze, Ho Chi Minh City on the Mekong, Dhaka and Kolkata on the Ganges, Buenos Aires and Montevideo on the Rio de la Plata, Cairo on the Nile. (Incidentally, the Danube is among the top ten in this negative ranking.) And the residential areas of the poorest population groups are often on or above the river. There is a lack of appropriate sanitary facilities. There is no waste disposal facility except in the river.

Dam construction. The most massive interventions in river systems are giant dams. The advantages cannot be denied. Millions of people in large cities can be supplied with cheap drinking water and electricity that is clean compared to that from coal-fired power plants. Irrigation options guarantee uniform agricultural yields even in periods of drought and for a growing population. But artificial lakes are displacing the local population, which often harbors considerable social explosives. Dams can be dangerous in the event of an earthquake. The flora and fauna of the river are changing completely, not least because the periodic alternation of high and low tide is replaced by an almost uniform discharge. And a dam is an insurmountable obstacle for fish.

The Aswan Dam in Egypt, opened in 1971, was the first huge project of its kind. For centuries, enormous amounts of water had flooded the Nile Valley every year. The fertile mud determined the rhythm of the field work and its yields. With the gigantic wall of rock, sand and clay, the river was dammed over a length of 500 kilometers to Lake Nasser, ten times the size of Lake Constance. The capacity of 2,100 megawatts meant a doubling of electricity generation in the western Arabian region. The use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides on intensively irrigated areas and the salinisation of the soil and erosion along the banks of the Nile brought disadvantages. The resettlement of 100,000 Nubians is now considered a success, but many of their places of worship have sunk in the reservoir and are lost forever.

Construction boom. In the 1980s there was a "gold rush" in the construction of dams. The three gorges dam on the Yangtze River, which was completed in 2008, is the most powerful so far. The power plant has a capacity of around 18,000 megawatts. The resettlement of 1.3 million people triggered fierce international criticism, as did the incalculable ecological consequences of such a massive encroachment on nature.

Worldwide, 45,000 large dams with a height of more than 15 meters have already been built. Thousands of dams are under construction or in the planning stage, some of them on streams that have so far been relatively spared.

Romance. Man loves rivers. What would Paris be without the Seine, London without Tower Bridge and the Thames, the sight of the New York skyline without the Hudson or the East River in front of it? River cruises as a return to slowness are more popular than ever. Like so much in nature, we take the existence of rivers for granted. But their endangerment and preservation are not least our responsibility.

Brigitte Pilz is a freelance journalist and editor-in-chief of Südwind magazine.