Rivers showcase some of the most visually stunning scenery on the planet and since life began on planet earth these waterways have provided freshwater essential for the development and the very survival of both human populations and natural ecosystems. Tragically, pollution and negligence all caused by the hand of man have transformed some of the world's most famous rivers from aquatic paradise into toxic and nightmarish watery wastelands and the magnitude of this problem seems only to intensify with every year. World Water Day rolls around annually on March 22nd and this United Nations-endorsed event focuses global attention on the universal importance of freshwater and advocates the sustainable management of freshwater resources. Clean, pure and untarnished freshwater is arguably the most important natural resource on earth and from the Colorado Rockies to the tropics of Java and Costa Rica, we explore the good, the bad and the downright ugly and shocking sides of some of the planet's most iconic rivers which remind us all of the critical importance of improving and conserving the world's natural waterways.
With its raging whitewater rapids and intensely photogenic fir tree-encrusted banks, the Animas River is the archetypal Colorado Rockies waterway as it twists its way from high in the San Juan Mountains, through ghost towns and canyons before flowing south into New Mexico. Spanish gold-seeker Juan Maria de Rivera christened it Río de las Ánimas, or 'River of Souls', in 1765 and the Animas is also the most photographed sight on the famous Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which now operates as a sightseeing and heritage journey between the two towns and until 1968 was used to transport gold and silver mined in the San Juan Mountains.
On August 5th 2015, a disaster struck which all but shattered the Animas River's image as a pristine Rocky Mountains waterway. While draining Gold King Mine just outside Silverton, contractors accidentally smashed an underground plug left in the mine from the area's gold mining glory days and as a result three million gallons - enough to fill 60,000 bathtubs, according to the US Geological Survey - of toxic wastewater had seeped into the river. Within 24 hours, the Animas had turned a mustard-tinted shade of yellow due to the zinc, copper, lead, arsenic and mercury-laced wastewater and the contamination of the river reached as far as New Mexico. Image Credit: BlueChannel24
The jungles and tropical forests of Costa Rica are world renowned for their ultra-rich biodiversity and the Rio Celeste, or 'Sky Blue River, in northern Costa Rica's Tenorio Volcano National Park showcases a natural freshwater phenomenon which is nothing short of optical magic. Until recently, geologists believed that the river's electric blue colour was due to volcanic activity but further study concluded that the convergence of two clear streams, the Quebrada Agria and the Río Buena Vista, into the Rio Celeste caused sunlight to reflect off the water's electromagnetic particles and give the Rio Celeste its staggering and otherworldly shade of neon blue.
Further south on Costa Rica's central Pacific coast, the efforts made by its government to present the country as a green paradise and to preserve its unique ecosystems and biodiversity have seemingly been ignored. Where the Rio Tárcoles spews into the Pacific, the oceanfront resembles something of a toxic wasteland as over 130,000 kilograms of plastic, sewage, sanitation and agricultural chemicals are dumped into the river each year and left to float down to the coast. Tragically the Costa Rican media reported in 2017 that the crocodile population of the Rio Tárcoles were showing severe signs of disease and malnutrition as a direct result of the river's pollution and experts have dubbed the Tárcoles 'the most contaminated river in Central America'. Image Credit: Celia Mason
Of all the world's waterways, none can claim to have been more culturally, economically and geographically essential to the development of an entire civilisation that northeastern Africa's Nile River. For the ancient Egyptians, the flooding of the Nile meant a rich annual crop of wheat, barley, vegetables, figs, melons and pomegranates which helped sustain both its population and its trade and the papyrus, grown on the banks of the Nile, was a precursor to modern day paper. The Egyptians also built some of their most iconic monuments along the banks of the Nile which are also some of the country's most famous sightseeing destinations, including the temple complex at Karnak and Temple of Horus at Edfu.
Flowing 6,853 kilometres from southern Sudan to its delta on northern Egypt's Mediterranean coast, the Nile is the longest river on the planet and the waterway faces a daily and dangerous pollution problem. Over 720 million tonnes of pollutants, including sewage, petrochemicals, mercury and plastics are dumped into the Nile annually and huge quantities of this are also spewed into the ocean when the river reaches the Mediterranean. A cruel twist on custom and tradition has also played a role in the river's toxicity as the ancient Egyptians would cast their organic waste into the river to continue the natural cycle of life and death. Today, this custom continues for the most part in Egypt, however the organic and biodegradable materials have been replaced by modern, harmful pollutants.
India is the birthplace and spiritual home of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, three religions which promote natural balance, spiritual well-being, purity and good karma as core principles for life. It accordingly comes as no surprise in rural India that rivers and waterways are often the backdrop to tranquil scenes such as rice barges passing by, shellfish being hauled in and frames of Pachisi, India's national board game played with cowrie shells. One such river is the Yamuna, the second largest tributary of the Ganges, which begins its 1376 kilometre flow from the Yamunotri Glacier in Uttarakhand, in the far north of India, and is even worshiped as a goddess of the same name.
For a country which oozes so much vibrant culture which stretches back tens of thousands of years, the depressing reality is that India has a chronic problem with river pollution. When the Yamuna reaches Agra, even the majestic Taj Mahal struggles to divert attention away from the shocking amount of pollution in the river as unimaginable amounts of sewage and industrial and chemical waste transform the Yamuna from holy Hindu river to toxic nightmare. The situation is so dire that experts in India now view the staggeringly polluted Yamuna River as 'beyond redemption'.
West Java's Citarum River is one of the most vital waterways in Indonesia and the main concourse as well as its tributaries supply water to over 25 million people in the city of Bandung and the greater Jakarta region. The Citarum's main source is the iconic Javanese volcano of Mount Wayang, just east of the town of Pangalengan and 40 kilometres south of Bandung, and before emptying into the Java Sea at Ujung Karawang the river flows for 300 kilometres. Dams along the Citarum irrigate the vast West Javanese rice paddies which contribute 5 percent of the total rice harvest for the whole of Indonesia and all along the river's tributaries, one of the most iconic images of Southeast Asia is on full show as harvesters paddle knee-deep in water to gather and plant the vital rice crop.
Seemingly a world away from Java's tropical and tranquil rice paddies, the Citarum River flows through the West Javanese capital city of Bandung. The staggering amount of pollution on this stretch of the Citarum have lead to the waterway being given the dubious honour of 'the most contaminated river in the world' as thousands of tonnes of household garbage and untreated industrial waste and sewage are reportedly dumped into the river on a daily basis. Despite a cleanup loan of US$500 million from the Asian Development Bank in 2008, but over 2000 factories lining the banks of the river and continue to pump mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxic metals into the water and Javanese fishermen are now said to be making a living from gather garbage from the Citarum, with fish stocks long since decimated.
China's Yangtze is one of the most famous and storied rivers in the world. The longest river in Asia and the third longest on the planet, the Yangtze flows for 6300 kilometres from its snow-covered source at Geladaindong Peak in the Tibetan Plateau and along the length of China before emptying into the East China Sea near Shanghai. One of the most famous places to get a view of the river is found 300 kilometres northwest of Chongqing at Shibaozhai, or 'Precious Stone Fortress', which is perched directly above the Yangtze and features Taoist and Buddhist temples and a pagoda known as Purple Rain Pavilion, built in 1819 during the Qing Dynasty.
Also known as Chang Jiang, 'Long River', and Jinsha Jiang, or 'Gold Dust River', the Yangtze has played a pivotal in Chinese history, culture, art, war and even revolution in the twentieth century and its vast river basin is home to one third of China's population. Fame and significance have come at a huge cost for the Yangtze, however, and when it reaches Jiangsu and nears the meagcity of Shanghai the river is plagued by industrial waste and pollution from toxic chemicals. Nearly half of China's factories are perched on the banks of the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze and consequently a 600-km-long pollution belt containing over 300 toxic pollutants has formed along the river.