Cradle of civilization
The earliest human settlements sprang up around rivers as people needed a source of water for drinking, cooking and washing. The great civilizations of the ancient world also grew around rivers-the Egyptian around the river Nile, the Mesopotamian around the Euphrates and Tigris and the Indus Valley civilization around the river Indus.
The rivers made the soil around them fertile with the silt they brought along, making it easier for people to grow crops. Once humans learnt how to make boats, rivers also provided them a means of transportation.
Rivers continue to stay centre-stage
Rivers continue to be important in modern day life too. Look at India-major cities like Delhi, Agra, Varanasi and Kolkata are situated on major rivers. The Ganga river system dominates the landscape of northern India, creating vast fertile plains that support intensive (a high level of) agriculture. As a result this is the most densely populated belt in India with the most roads and rail networks.
Why are rivers important?
Water for irrigation
The waters from Ganga and her tributaries irrigate the fields of the millions of acres of agricultural crops which are grown along her banks. These farms provide food for nearly one-third of the population of India. The same is true of southern rivers like the Krishna and Cauvery.
Providing an ecosystem
Rivers are a fabulous habitat for many living creatures. Birds, mammals and reptiles live within these ecosystems. Some of these, such as the Ganges River Dolphin live exclusively in river habitats. Many kinds of fresh water fish and amphibians call rivers home and they cannot survive anywhere else.
Kaziranga: The floods that give
Every year, the Kaziranga National Park in Assam gets flooded during the monsoon when the Brahmaputra overflows. While it causes the death of many animals and hardship to more others who have to flee to higher ground, the floods bring new life to the park. The silt brought down by the river makes the soil fertile and help many different kinds of plants and trees grow. The floods in a way clean out the park and maintain its landscape.
The trouble: Pollution
Pollution is the biggest problem facing Indian rivers. Homes and factories dump their waste into rivers like the Ganga and Yamuna, making then unfit for any use after. India has among the dirtiest rivers in the world.
The politics of water
Rivers are a natural resource, and like with many such resources, everyone fights for a share. As rivers flow through multiple states, governments of these states are at odds over who gets to use the water. Take for instance the Cauvery, which starts in Karnataka and joins the Bay of Bengal in Tamil Nadu. When the monsoon has been poor, Karnataka, which has built dams that block the flow of the river, delays the release of water downstream to Tamil Nadu. The two states also disagree over how much of the water each should get.
The problem happens between countries too. India and Pakistan share the Indus and there is an agreement called the Indus Water Treaty that spells out how much each can use. All these years, India has been sending more water downstream than what is Pakistan’s share. But after the Pulwama attack that soured relations between the two, India has decided to keep back its entire share of the river’s waters.
The linking of India’s rivers
The Indian Government has been working on a grand plan to interlink Indian rivers. The idea behind this is to send water from the rivers of northern and eastern India, which often flood during the monsoon, southwards and westwards to areas such as the Deccan, Gujarat and Maharashtra where there are droughts very often. This will be done through a network of canals.
Not too much work has actually started on the building of the canals but detailed plans have been made. However, not everyone is sure if the plans make sense. Reducing water flow in the northern rivers could reduce the silt they bring down and affect the fertility of the Ganga plains. Animals and birds living along them could also get affected. Reduced flow will hit the deltas hardest-the places where the river meets the sea. The deltas depend on the silt deposits to ensure that the sea doesn’t bite into chunks of land. With less silt flowing down, they will have less protection against advancing water.