Despite the fact that rivers only account for 0.49% of surface freshwater, it isn’t an overstatement when we say rivers have historically been crucial facilitators of the economic growth of the communities and nations located around them. Right from ancient times, if we geolocate all the prosperous civilizations, unsurprisingly, we find most of them lying astride a river valley. To date, rivers have been proving to be equally vital as the lifelines for the nations’ economies in numerous ways. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the consequent economic growth that followed across the globe, the role of rivers has been intertwined exponentially with the growth trajectories of the nations. It isn’t a mere coincidence that most of the economically developed nations today are also the ones that have made the effective, efficient, and sustainable use of rivers. It will be a travesty to the rivers if we ignore how they helped sow the seeds of civilizations and, thereby, the world economy.
Each of the early civilizations has its own unique set of features, albeit we can find one striking similarity across them, i.e., each of them has its genesis astride a river valley. Historical testimonies are far too many to strike it off as mere coincidence. Rivers had attracted and settled down various nomadic communities, facilitated food production, and gradually earned the reputation of being the cradles of civilizations. Nearly six millenniums ago, two rivers, namely Tigris and the Euphrates, provided lifeblood that facilitated the formation of farming settlements that ultimately culminated in the Mesopotamian Civilization. Similarly, the Egyptian Civilization, Indus Valley civilization and the Chinese civilization had followed the suit, thanks to the Nile, Indus, and Yangtze rivers, respectively. The yearly floods brought along the water and fertile soil that precipitated a series of events like cultivation, settlements, and transportation along these river valleys, which ultimately metamorphosed these settlements into trading empires. The usage of rivers followed a linear trajectory till the Industrial revolution when rivers were mostly used for the purposes as mentioned earlier.
However, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the latter half of the 18th-century, river systems had begun contributing exponentially to the economies. The American and European nations have made good use of them for the transportation of raw materials and finished goods to the coastal ports. Rivers provided a safe, cheaper, and all-weather alternative to coal-based transportation for the movement of goods during the industrial revolution. America made extensive use of the great lakes. Similarly, Britain used Thames, Severn, Trent, etc., for the swift mobilization of goods to and from inland. Especially the Rhine, apart from being a transport artery of Europe as it was pivotal in turning riverbank cities of Germany, France, and Belgium into trading hubs, also provided abundant hydel-based power generation in its upper stream. Since then, rivers have become an integral part of a nation’s economic prosperity, and their contributions have diverged into many domains in the 21st century.
Bonhomie: Rivers and The Modern Economies
Today the contribution of rivers is manifold. Though they serve the same age-old purposes mostly, the sheer scale at which the present-day economies are intertwined with rivers is unprecedented. We’ll have a look into the myriad ways in which rivers propel the economy.
Irrigation: One of the most vital services rendered by the rivers is the water they offer for cultivation. Agriculture is the basis of the economies of many nations, especially of the third world bloc, and rivers have been the basis for agriculture. Most of the world’s food comes from the agricultural areas cantered around river valleys. E.g., Amazon basin, Ganga valley of India, Yangtze basin of China, etc. According to WWF, roughly around 25% of the world’s food comes from croplands irrigated by the river water. Throughout the world, dams have been constructed across the rivers, and millions of acres of land have been irrigated. Since rainfall is unpredictable and unreliable, rivers have been a time-tested reliable source of irrigation. Farm produce, especially in countries like ours, provides the backbone for the economies. Poor returns from cultivation would have a domino effect on the economy, as it triggers food inflation, reduces the purchasing power of millions of Agri-based families, increases bad debts of banks, and thereby crippling the entire national economy.
Archaeological and historical records, especially from the Indus basin of the Indian subcontinent, throw light on the ancient India’s crude mechanisms to tap the river waters for irrigation purposes. In recent times, we have replaced these mechanisms with huge dams almost across all the major rivers of India to cater to the needs of the world’s largest arable land.
Human Settlements: Water is the lifeblood of human lives. The stable water resources like rivers have drawn and settled down the nomadic communities in the past and catered to their biological and domestic demands. Rivers have also attracted wild animals, which the early settlers preyed upon. Slowly these riverine cities have drawn millions of people from far away hinterlands and precipitated into mega-urban dwellings. Right from the ancient urban centres like Alexandria, Mohenjodaro, and Babylonia to the modern megacities like London, New York, Delhi, Tokyo, Paris, Adelaide, etc., have all been the standing examples of river-based urban dwellings. These megacities are rightly regarded as the engines of the economic growth of their respective countries. 80% of the global GDP today comes from urban places. The riverine cosmopolitan Tokyo alone generated around 2,055 billion US dollars of GDP, while New York generated 1,874 billion US dollars of GDP in the year 2021.
A classic example to elucidate the sway of rivers on human settlements can be inferred from Egypt. Not surprisingly, 95% of its population resides astride the Nile basin, which accounts for just 5% of its land. The population density around the Nile valley is 1,540 per sq. km, quite in contrast to 96 per sq. km elsewhere in Egypt.
Power Generation: Energy is the lifeblood of modern-day machines. Barring a few technologies that run on fossil fuels, electricity-powered machines remain the mainstay of modern economies. Hydropower constitutes a significant share of the energy mix. As of today, hydropower accounts for around 17% of the world’s total electricity generation (International energy agency). Rivers across the world have been sheltering the elephantine power projects like the three gorges dam on the Yangtze River in China, the Itaipu power plant on the Parana River in Brazil, the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in the USA, the Bhakra Nangal project in India, etc. Most advanced economies like Norway and Switzerland depend almost entirely on hydropower for their electrical energy needs.
Hydropower offers a litany of advantages in the form of lesser carbon emissions, flexibility, easy maintenance, and lower cost over the long term. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reckons that in order for the world economies to be more climate-friendly, the share of hydropower should spike up by around 60% by 2050.
Supporting Industries: Riverbanks are the most docile places for industries to thrive. Rivers cater to industries’ scores of services like providing water as raw material, as a coolant agent, cleanser, dispenser of industrial wastes, etc. For the same reasons, most of the world’s major river basins have been harbouring major industries on their either bank. The Rhine-Ruhr Valley in Europe during the Industrial Revolution; The Ganga valley, the Kolkata-Hoogli belt, the Damodar Valley Region of India, the Tokyo-Yokohama industrial belt of Japan, the Murray-Darling basin of Australia, etc. exemplify the above assertion. Rivers not only provide water to the industries but also help the industries in dispensing the goods to the markets at cheaper costs. Hydropower industry relies entirely on rivers to the extent that it ceases to exist without the rivers. The nuclear energy industry is being touted as the next big industry in the 21st century with immense potential to quench the ever-bludgeoning energy demands of the nations, and river waters lend invaluable service to the nuclear power plants as coolant agents. E.g., Doel and Tihange nuclear plants in Belgium.
Transportation: Riverways as a mode of transportation have been of great utility right across millennia, beginning from the dawn of civilizations to the modern-day industrialized world. As river navigation is relatively inexpensive and climate-friendly, rivers are widely used for both inland and transnational navigation. Rivers like Mississippi, Volga, Ganga, Yangtze, etc. exemplify inland navigation, while rivers like the Danube, Niger, Rhine, etc. exemplify international navigation.
Despite being riddled with seasonal fluctuations in river flows, river transport offers legion advantages compared to other modes. The initial built-up cost of river transport on large rivers is eight to ten times lesser in comparison to road transport. The railways incur 35%, and roadway incurs 67%-80% more costly in comparison to river transport. This saves a lot of costs and thereby helps contain inflation. Especially with the costs of roadways being so volatile, river navigation is gaining more traction.
Fisheries: Rivers provide a livelihood to millions of people engaged in the aquaculture industry. Across the world, the fisheries and aquaculture sectors are major sources of employment. WWF reports that 40% of global fish catch is from rivers. FAO reckons that in 2018, aquaculture and fisheries provided livelihood to 59.5 million people in the primary sector of fisheries and aquaculture. More importantly, when we consider both primary and secondary processing sectors of aquaculture, women contribute 50% to the workforce in this industry. This underscores the importance of rivers in bringing gender parity in economics. Also, the fact that 90% of the inland fishing comes from developing nations like India, China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, etc., highlights the role of rivers in these emerging economies.
India is a classic case to spotlight the role of rivers in propelling its economy. India, being plush with the presence of 14 major, 44 medium, and numerous minor rivers, produces around 1 Lakh ton of fishery (Dept. of finance). According to the Economic Survey of 2020-21, 28 million people in India, especially the marginalized and vulnerable communities, have been the prime beneficiaries of the fishing industry, with the majority engaged in riverine fishing. Globally, India ranks third in terms of fish production, with the bulk share coming from the inland fisheries. The contribution of rivers has witnessed a tectonic shift in the past few decades as Indian fish production has transitioned from marine-based to inland river and canal-based. This sector is widely being touted as the sunrise industry that is well poised to play a crucial role in the country’s economy in the near future.
Sediment Delivery: Rivers, apart from irrigating the fields, also bless the river plains by bringing down fertile soils as sediments and depositing them astride the river valley. These soils are so fertile that they are the most extensively cultivated regions of the world. They are often regarded as the food bowls of the world. Fertile soils greatly enhance the agri-produce and also reduce the cost of production as they obviate the need to enrich the soils through the application of synthetic nutrients.
Also, the river plains provide huge amounts of sand for construction purposes. Rivers, especially in the drier regions of many countries in Africa and Asia, Australia, and parts of North and South America, have conventionally been a great source of sand. Ganga, Godavari basin, Mekong, and the Brahmaputra are extensively dredged for their sand resources. River sand is preferred for construction purposes as it requires comparatively less processing and has better characteristics than other sources.
In addition, river sediments form and sustain deltas, which shelter around 50 crore people worldwide and produce 4% of the world’s food despite only constitution 0.5% of the world’s land. River deltas foster a wide range of economic activities due to their high Agri productivity, navigation and tourism activities.
Tourism: Globally, rivers constitute a major tourism destination, providing spectacular aesthetic landscapes, recreational facilities, a sense of adventure, and establishing a connecting link between people and the environment. River tourism accounts for a significant proportion of the world’s tourism industry. They draw a huge number of tourists from all across the globe. Rivers offer a wide range of tourist activities like boating, Canoeing & Kayaking, Ecotourism, sport fishing, scuba diving, culinary activities, camping provisions, etc. Rivers like the Nile, Amazon, Ganges, Yangtze, Volga, Rhine, Mississippi, Thames, Seine, Hudson, etc., attract millions of tourists annually. Apart from recreational purposes, rivers also have a religious connotation. Every year, crores of people throng Indian rivers like the Ganges, Godavari, etc., for holy baths and offerings as a part of religious festivities. Kumbha Mela on the banks of the river Ganges has earned the reputation of the world’s largest religious congregation. One can imagine the amount of economic activity that a congregation of such scale generates.
Due to the ever-increasing riverine tourism, riverfront development has grown in leaps and bounds in the past few decades. Riverfront tourism triggers a domino effect on the local economy as convention centres, recreational facilities, hotel chains, and restaurants have sprung up to cater to the needs of tourists. It provides livelihood opportunities to scores of local communities.
Traditionally, rivers have been valued primarily for their irrigation and hydropower services. However, as discussed above, rivers provide a broader set of services than they have traditionally been valued for. With the increasing climate consciousness, there is an increasing consensus among economic super giants to revert to sustainable modes of the economy. As a result, the services of rivers have been gaining more traction in recent times. They are increasingly being integrated with the economies of the nations. Governments, the private sector, and financial institutions are beginning to make progress in recognizing the wider value of rivers.
The Indian Case: Is India Doing Enough?
From the known history of India, i.e., since the Indus valley civilization, the early settlers have been making the best use of Indian rivers, especially the Indus basin and the Ganges plains, along with their tributaries. The prosperity of IVC can evidently be attributed to the Indus as it provided fertile flood plains for the cultivation and navigating channels for the transport of goods. Traditionally India is an agrarian economy. Hence, rivers have been integral to the Indian economy. Indian monsoons are notorious for being unpredictable and erratic. So, rivers fill the gap wherever monsoons are inadequate.
India, despite being plush with 14 major, 44 medium, and numerous small rivers, so far has failed to tap its true potential due to a plethora of reasons. The river pollution, overexploitation of river resources, unregulated activities in river basins, lack of development of inland navigable infrastructure, and seasonal fluctuation in river flows owing to climatic change have all cumulatively resulted in Indian rivers being underused or abused. India potentially has about 14,500 km of navigable inland waterways, which comprise rivers, canals, etc. But only around 5000 km of them are operable. Moreover, the majority of these operations are currently confined to a few stretches in the Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly belt, the Barak River, the Brahmaputra, rivers in Goa, the backwaters in Kerala, and the Godavari-Krishna river’s deltaic regions. Inland waterways account for a mere 6% of the country’s freight modal mix, while our neighbouring developing economies, such as Bangladesh (16%) and Thailand (12%), relatively have a higher share of water-based transport, underscoring our shortfalls. Also, India has failed to ramp up the tourist infrastructure to draw people toward the riverfronts. Consequently, river-based tourism is restricted to a few pockets, like Kerala, Jammu, and Northeast India.
The Course Correction
Realizing the shortfalls, the Indian government, in the recent past, has embarked on several initiatives to un-tap the monetary value of the Indian rivers. Constituting the Inland waterways Authority of India and subsequent development of national waterways along the Ganga-Hooghly between Allahabad-Haldia (1620 km), the Sadiya-Dhubri stretch of river Brahmaputra (891 km), the Kollam-Kottapuram stretch of West Coast (205 km) are expected to cut down the cost of transportation in significant proportions. National Mission for Clean Ganga, interlinking of rivers, regulations on constructions in flood plains, building more canals that are fed by rivers, and incentives for drip irrigation are a few other initiatives. However, much needs to be done. Strict enforcement of environmental laws, sustainable use of river resources like sand, fisheries, etc., watershed development programs, strict checks on unabashed exploitation of rivers, and scientific and sustainable river interlinking are needs of the hour. India has bagged notoriety for being lax on conserving river bodies. Now India can ill afford to remain in the slumber as it has challenged itself by setting an ambitious target of reaching a 5 trillion economy.
Fate of Global Rivers
The health of the global rivers is increasingly jeopardized in the recent past. Overlooked and exploited, rivers are under increasing pressure across the world due to both anthropological and natural stresses. Over many millennia, humans have exerted an increasingly pervasive pressure on river resources. Over exploitation by humans through damming, irrigation, and other agricultural and engineering have altered river ecosystems since the advent of the Industrial Revolution.
There is an urgent need to prevent the decline in rivers health, at least for three reasons. One, with the increasing global outcry to limit the global warming to below 2 degrees, there is an added responsibility upon countries to insulate their economic ascendency from activities that are detrimental to the environment. The more the world involves rivers in its economies, the better it would be placed to live up to its self-assigned responsibilities. Two, rivers are vital to food production, upon which agrarian economies are highly reliant. Three, to make economic growth more inclusive as rivers provide livelihood majorly to marginalised communities in numerous ways. So, the onus lies up on all the quarters, i.e., governments, civil society and the general public, to realise the vitality of the rivers and to establish a synergy between them and the economies.
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