Human Planet
Copyright Timothy Allen / BBC

Rivers

Rivers provide many of the essentials for human life - fresh water, food, natural highways, and fun - but living by a river can be a risky business. Whether it’s the Amazon River in South America, the Ganges in India, or the Bani in Mali, rivers dictate a way of life for the people who live on their shores.


Photo from Human Planet
Fisherman Sam Niang risks his life on his home-made high wire so he can reach a prize fishing position over the flood-waters of the Mekong River in Laos.

Introduction

Human Planet
Copyright Timothy Allen / BBC 
Rivers

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About Rivers

Humans have always been drawn to rivers. They flow through every environment on earth, bringing us many of the essentials of life including water, food, and transport. But while rivers give, they can also take away. Flood, freezing, drought and total disappearance have all pushed human ingenuity to new heights.

In Mali, North Africa, a craftsman named Ouseman depends on the river for his livelihood. He’s a master mason in Djenne, an ancient city built entirely from river mud. Ouseman is responsible for the upkeep of the city’s Great Mosque, the biggest and oldest mud building in the world, and the centre of Ouseman’s culture.

Every year, down in the dry river bed, the mud is blended with rice husks and left to ferment until it is just the right consistency to provide the mosque with a fresh coat of mud. In a race against time, the whole town mucks in, running up ladders with buckets of wet mud, to give the mosque a fresh coat of mud before the rains come.

In Meghalaya, Northern India, rivers play a different role in people’s lives since Meghalaya is officially the wettest place on earth. During the monsoon season, locals endure so much rain that flooding rivers threaten to isolate communities for months on end. Luckily, the local people have found a most magical and unexpected solution. They train the roots of strangler figs to form beautiful living bridges over the floodwaters.

But no change in landscape compares to that of the Amazon rainforest. With around 20% of the world’s total river flow passing through it, the Amazon is the largest river on Earth. In fact, it is so large that when it floods each year, the sheer volume and weight of the water creates an incredible 7.5cm dip in the planet’s crust.

No wonder then that people worship rivers and their seemingly-miraculous life-giving powers. For Hindus, the Ganges remains at the very heart of their faith and represents the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth. When a Hindu dies, the most auspicious site for cremation is on the banks of the Ganges, where a person’s body can then be returned to the same waters that helped bring it to life in the first place.

For the more frivolous of us, rivers can simply be a wonderful source of fun. Several times a year, in the south-west of England, hundreds of surfers gather on the River Severn to ride the famous Severn Bore. Literally a tidal wave, it travels up the river for many miles providing entertainment for surfers and watchers alike.

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