Rivers Essay

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Rive rs , or large natural waterways, have been used by man since prehistoric times. Remains of early man, such as those found by Louis Leakey in Kenya, have often been located in or near what had been river beds, as have pieces of flints used by prehistoric man during the Stone Age. The river provided water and fish; it was also an ideal place to hunt for animals that came in search of water.

Early towns and cities seem to have arisen alongside rivers, with the civilizations of Sumer, Ancient Egypt, and Ancient China all being heavily connected with rivers. By this time, people were growing crops and water was necessary to properly irrigate fields. It was also needed to provide water for domesticated animals, and as these settlements grew, rivers became important to wash away effluent from a town or city.

In the ancient world, the civilization of Sumer used the land between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, with that of Ancient Egypt emerging on either side of the River Nile. Although it is likely that the Sumerians did construct many boats-the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl proved that the Sumerians could have sailed down the east coast of Africa with his Tigris expedition-the Egyptians certainly had many ships. Indeed, the stones to make the Great Pyramid of Cheops would have had to be brought by river from the quarry to Luxor. In China, settlements started to appear along the Yellow River (or Huang Ho), and in India, the earliest civilization is called the Indus Valley after its location along the River Indus. By this time the rivers were being used for two more purposes. With the construction of boats, they provided a method of trading with nearby places, and eventually with other civilizations. They also formed a natural barrier for the city to defend itself from attack.

Gradually more and more major cities arose alongside rivers. Rome, on the River Tiber, was clearly a better location than some of the nearby Etruscan settlements. In Roman Britain, the original capital of Camulodunum (Colchester) was quickly supplanted by Londinium (London), owing to the easier accessibility of the latter along the River Thames, with the River Colne through Colchester being harder to navigate. Even many inland capitals, such as the Thai medieval capital of Ayudhya, were located on rivers. The city of Manaus in Brazil is largely an anomaly created from a small port on the River Amazon that happened to be the closest to the area where wild rubber could be cultivated from the 1890s until the 1910s.

Although rivers have provided access to cities from ancient times to the present day, they also often demarcate the borders between countries, provinces, or states. In the case of the Roman Empire, the River Rubicon marked the boundary between Cisalpine (Italian) Gaul and what was then defined as Italy. During the Roman Republic (509-27 B.C.E.), no Roman general was allowed to bring his forces south over the river. If one did so, they disobeyed the law Lex Cornelia Majestatis, and were directly challenging the authority of Rome. Thus, when Julius Caesar, in 49 B.C.E., decided to cross the river and attack Rome, it led to the term crossing the Rubicon, or passing the point of no return. The Romans also used the River Danube to mark the furthest north that their empire stretched. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919, at the end of World War I, included a clause that German troops could never be deployed on the west bank of the River Rhine, the “Rhineland,” although Hitler did this in 1936. In 1954 at the Geneva Agreements on Indochina, Vietnam was partitioned into North Vietnam and South Vietnam along the Bei-Hai River.

Today, there are many countries that have borders delineated by rivers. In most cases, the river boundary means that either both countries or states have access to the river, or that it is divided down the middle. An interesting exception is the border between the Australian states of New South Wales and Victoria, with the entire Murray River being in New South Wales, meaning that fishermen, even if they are standing in Victoria, need to get a New South Wales fishing permit for the Murray as the fish they catch would be from another state. One geographical curiosity, in terms of rivers, is The Gambia, a West African country, formerly a British colony, that straddles both banks of the River Gambia.

As well as being natural barriers for defense, rivers have often been seen as an easy method of attack. During the War of 1812 the British used the Potomac River to attack Washington D.C. In the American Civil War, the Union forces spent much energy in capturing the city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River and cutting the Confederacy into two. Curiously, Beijing is one of the few major cities in the world that is not located on a river. This helped protect it from naval attack, delaying European forces in 1860 and again in 1900.

In some countries and cultures, particular rivers mark very important symbolic and historical events. For India, the River Ganges is of great significance to all Hindus who bathe in it at particular times of the year. At the Partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947, some militant Hindus made claim to the River Indus, wanting it to be diverted through India. The Yalu River representing the boundary of North Korea with China has political significance to the North Koreans from the fighting along it during the Korean War. One of the causes of the Gulf War (1990-91) was that Iraq wanted greater access to the Persian Gulf, wanting to have enough land to establish a deep-water port at the mouth of the River Euphrates.

There are a number of countries that are named after their major rivers. Technically, India is named after the River Indus, although it is no longer in India. The others are Republic of the Congo; Democratic Republic of the Congo; The Gambia; Niger and Nigeria; Paraguay; and Senegal. In 1806 Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine, but it fell apart with Napoleon’s abdication in 1814.

Although explorers and geographers have long debated which is the longest river in the world, it is now accepted that it is the River Nile (approximately 4,160 miles long), followed by the Amazon (3,920 miles), the Yangtze (3,900 miles), the Mississippi-Missouri (3,870 miles), the Yenisey-Angara (3,440 miles; in Siberia), the Yellow River (3,400 miles), the Ob-Irtysh (3,360 miles; in China and Siberia); and the Congo/Zaire (2,900 miles).


  1. Great Rivers of the World (National Geographic Society, 1984);
  2. M. Haslam, The River Scene (Cambridge University Press, 1997);
  3. Rand McNally Encyclopedia of World Rivers (Rand McNally, 1980);
  4. Claudia W. Sadoff, Dale Whittington, and David Grey, Africa’s International Rivers: An Economic Perspective (World Bank, 2002);
  5. Stanley A. Schumm, The Pluvial System (Wiley, 1977).

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