Over the millennia rivers have carved their way through many types of landscapes and have created countless ecosystems in the process, each more diverse and plentiful than the last. They are the reason behind many plants’ and animals’ existence and are the seasonal home for an immense number of migratory birds.
Not even human civilization remained unaffected by these ever-changing and constantly moving bodies of water. We can go as far as saying that humanity is this way thanks, in part, to some mighty rivers around the globe. They provide us with everything we need, from water, food, arable land, energy and a fast mean of transportation. These waterways have even acted as an impassable barrier for armies and other marauders on numerous occasions, keeping their people safe from danger.
10. Mekong River – Indochina
A raging river that battles its way through the entire jungle system which is the Indochinese Peninsula, the Mekong finds its roots all the way up in the Tibetan Highlands. It flows through: China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and then finally empties its banks in the South China Sea, some 4350 kilometers (2700 miles) away, and not before shaping up into a huge delta in Southern Vietnam (LINK 2).
Mekong is still a wild river, flowing freely throughout most of its length and housing the largest freshwater fishery in the world. It has also spared the kingdom of Siam from eastern invasions many times, but the river can sometimes show its treacherous face by changing direction and leaving Laos high and dry in the face of attack.
Because of its unpredictability, Mekong is almost impossible to bridge or navigate. That’s why during colonial days, it was the border between the French empire to the east and Siam. Acting also as a buffer, the river together with Thailand (Siam) itself, kept the French form coming face to face with the British ruling in Burma at the time. Thanks to Mekong, Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia which was never colonized by a foreign power.
Today the Mekong River Commission, which consists of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, has agreed to make use of the river in terms on hydroelectric energy, irrigation programs and fishery exploitation. Laos is taking the lead in dam building, having the potential to provide all its neighbors with electricity in the near future. The commission has however advised against building dams that span the entire width of the river since the economic losses of shrinking fisheries will outweigh the energy output generated.
9. The Volga – Western Russia
The Volga or “Mother Volga” as the Russians call it spans a total distance of 3700 km. (2300 mi.). It originates in the Valdai Hills, northwest of Moscow and follows an eastern direction through Novgorod, up until the city of Kazan. Here it shifts south, goes through Ulyanovsk, Samara, Saratov, Volgograd and Astrakhan where it finally meets with the Caspian Sea. This is the longest river in Europe and the spawning grounds for the beluga sturgeon.
It is one of the most important shipping lanes in Russia, allowing for around two thirds of all the country’s inland waterway traffic. The Volga is connected to the Baltic Sea through the Rybinsk Reservoir and to Moscow itself via a manmade canal. It also has access to the Black Sea by another canal joining the Volga and the Don Rivers (LINK 8). It has acted as a trade route since the early Middle Ages when the Slavs and Khazars settled and used it as a means of transportation. Even Sarai (near present-day Volgograd), the capital of the Mongolian Golden Horde of the 13th century was on its banks.
The oldest mention of the Volga was made by the Greek writer Ptolemy in his book entitled simply Geography, naming it the Rha River. The Volga was also witness to one of the most gruesome and bloody battles of WWII, when the Nazis tried for more than 5 months to conquer the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd), but ultimately failed and changed the fate of the war with it.
8. Murray River – South Australia
Born on the slopes of the Australian Alps in New South Wales, the Murray River courses its way, 2590 km (1600 mi.) westwards, through the wetlands there. It eventually comes together with the even longer Darling River, gathering water from as far away as the Australian outback. It’s also one of the oldest rivers in the world, even by modern geology standards, dating back 130 million years. In a time when Australia was only a scattered archipelago of islands surrounded by a shallow sea, Murray was just beginning to spring into existence. As the land slowly began to rise, so did the river start to take its current day shape.
Archeological evidence points out native Aboriginal tribes living on the river’s banks and tributaries for over 40,000 years and in more than 10,000 different locations. It’s also home to the largest Red Gum forest in the world and Australia’s largest freshwater fish, the Murray Cod. Nevertheless, Europeans only discovered it in 1824 when the explorers Hamilton H. Hume and William H. Howell came across it.
Also known as the “food bowl”, the Murray-Darling Basin generates around one third of the entire national food production. Irrigation together with the hot Australian climate, leave only about 4 percent of rainfall water to reach the Murray River Mouth at the edge of the Indian Ocean. Even so, the Murray houses numerous hydroelectric plants and reservoirs, and is one of the longest navigable rivers in the world. Close to $850 million are currently being spent by the Australian government in order to lower their impact on the river and habitats surrounding it.
7. The Euphrates – The Middle East
As one of the longest rivers in the Middle East, the Euphrates together with its sister channel, the Tigris River, have been the lifeline of some of the oldest civilizations in the world. Between them, the ancient lands of Mesopotamia emerge, home to the bygone Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumer empires. Starting off at the confluence of the Karasu and Murat rivers in central-east Turkey, the Euphrates follows a south-east direction through the deserts of Syria and Iraq, finishing its journey 2800 km (1740 mi.) away in the Persian Gulf. At its largest, the Roman Empire had the Euphrates as its easternmost border.
Before joining with the Tigris in South Iraq, the Euphrates creates Lake Hammar surrounded by a large swampland, home to the Marsh Arabs whose roots go back to the beginning of human civilization. In the early 1990s the Iraqi government began draining these marshlands to better control the Shiite people living there. Presently, Turkey, Syria and Iraq battle each other over the river’s waters since it is one of the main sources for irrigation and electricity in the region.
6. The River Nile – NE Africa
Even if most of us automatically associate this dark-blue river with the Egyptians of old, the Nile also has a deep impact on: Kenya, Eritrea, Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia; other countries the river flows through or draws its waters from. With its staggering 6700 km (4190 mi.) length, the Nile is the longest river in the world. Well, basically the Nile is the result of its two major tributaries, the White and the Blue Nile, which come together on the outskirts of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. The White Nile starts its journey in central Africa and is fed by Lake Victoria, while the Blue Nile finds its roots in Ethiopia and draws its waters from Lake Tana.
The ancient Egyptians called it “Ar” which means “black”, like the layer of silt it leaves behind during its annual flooding season. If it wasn’t for the Nile, the old Egyptian civilization would have never existed. While most of the country is empty desert, ancient Egypt has always relied on agriculture to draw its power from. Since the river has a predictable flooding schedule, the people living on its banks made great use of it and implemented a sophisticated irrigation system which basically made Egypt a ruling power during ancient times.
Close to its mouth where the Nile empties its banks into the Mediterranean Sea, the river splits into two major branches. These branches are the Rosetta to the west and Damietta to the east, between which the great Nile Delta crops into existence. This place is home to a vast number of animals like the Nile crocodile, hippopotami, baboons, a large variety of fish and huge number of migratory birds. Because of excessive irrigation and the construction of the Aswan Dam, the delta is currently shrinking and a large part of the native fauna is or will soon be extinct.
5. The Danube – Central Europe
Named by Napoleon as the “Queen of Europe’s Rivers”, the Danube is the considered to be the most international river basin in the world. It springs in Germany’s romantic Black Forest, travels a total distance of 2850 km (1770 mi.), passing through 10 countries and 4 capital cities, finally reaching the Black Sea in Romania and Ukraine. It’s also the only river in the world whose beginning is considered to be its mouth, not its spring.
This river is packed with history, being an important transport route for medieval Europeans. Throughout most of its history, the Roman Empire held the Danube as its northern border, sparing them from many barbarian invasions and surprise attacks. Even before the Romans, the Greeks were navigating the river’s lower reaches, conducting trade with the Dacians and Thracians in the region. With more recent events like the Main-Danube Canal being built in 1992, the Danube is connected to the Rhine and from there to the North Sea.
Its delta is the second largest in Europe after Volga’s, but it’s the best preserved out of the two. It’s also home to the largest population on pelicans in Europe, not to mention a large number of other migratory bird species on their way from the Arctic to Africa. This delta is relatively new and in constant expansion. Six thousand years ago the area was simply a gulf in the Black Sea, but over time and with more and more silt brought down from as far as the Alps, the Danube Delta began to take shape and is currently growing seaward at a rate of 25-30 meters (80-100 feet) per year.
4. The Mississippi – North America
This 3780 km (2350 mi) long river splits the United States into two. Flowing in a southern direction, the Mississippi courses through 10 states before discharging in the Gulf of Mexico. It takes its waters from Lake Itasca in Minnesota and together with its many tributaries, drains almost 3.2 million sq. km (1.23 million sq. mi) of the continental US, making up 40% of the country. Together with the Missouri River and its close proximity to the Great Lakes, Mississippi was and still is a very important transport lane, reaching widths of 18 km (11 miles) in some places.
Native Americans have been living beside it as early as 4000 BC. When the Europeans first arrived in the area in the 16th century, more than 15 important tribes were calling Mississippi their home. Once the river became known among the colonists, the great European empires began fighting over its control and economic advantages. It eventually became official USA property in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase from the French.
The river is extremely important to the American economy since its basin produces 92% of the nation’s agricultural exports and almost all of its livestock. Each year around 500 million tons of goods are shipped up and down the Mississippi and is the source of fresh drinking water for over 50 cities.
3. The Indus River – Pakistan
The Indus River which gives India its name is the prime water source in Pakistan. Emerging in the Kailas range on the Himalayan slopes, the river flows west through Kashmir and Jammu in India. It then changes direction SW passing through the Punjab plains in Pakistan all the way to the Arabian Sea some 3060 km (1900 mi.) away from its source. Because of the seasonal monsoons, the river overflows twice a year making the lower parts of the river extremely fertile.
That’s why one of the oldest civilizations on Earth made its home here around 4500 years ago. Some further evidence points out that people living on the river’s banks and tributaries were trading with the Mesopotamians even earlier; around 3500 BC. The region holds around 1500 sites belonging to the Indus Valley Civilization, making it one of the largest in the ancient world. Some of the greater sites are Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro which were comprised of multi-story buildings, made out of uniformly-sized bricks along perpendicular streets. These cities were built in such a way that they would catch the blowing winds and transforming them into a natural AC system. Not to mention the fact that these cities had an ingenious underground sewage network which could put Medieval European settlements to shame, four millennia later.
Over centuries, the climate was no longer capable of maintaining any commercial navigation. From 1880 onwards only small vessels are able to sail up and down the river.
2. Coatzacoalcos River – Southern Mexico
Not an imposing river by many standards, draining a meager 13700 sq. km (8500 sq. mile) area in the Veracruz province of Mexico, but a very important waterway in terms of human civilization. The Olmecs were the first to inhabit this area and exploit the advantages of the Coatzacoalcos River and its tributaries as early as 1400 BC. This is the oldest culture in the pre-Colombian Mesoamerica and was a template after which most other future civilizations in the region would emulate.
Legend has it that the Olmec god, Quetzalcoatl sailed the river on a boat made out of a snake skin, thus giving Coatzacoalcos its name which in the Nahuatl (Aztec) language means “the place where the serpent hides”. The river held an important role with the arrival of the Europeans as well. Herman Cortez, the famous Spanish explorer and conqueror was first to suggest using this river to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific Oceans. Plans were never fully put in motion and with the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914, they were dropped altogether. Nevertheless, the port of Coatzacoalcos built in 1825 at the river’s mouth is the third most important trade hub in the Mexican Gulf.
1. Yangtze River – China
Like the Mekong River in Indochina, the Yangtze or Chang River begins its arduous journey in the Tibetan Highlands. It flows through some of the most picturesque landscapes in China and is the main waterway on which the Chinese built their civilization. It’s the longest river in Asia and the third in the world after the Nile and the Amazon, spanning a total distance of 5800 km (3600 mi.) and emptying in the East China Sea.
The first half of the river’s course takes us through some 600-1200 meter (2000-4000 ft.) high gorges. This mountainous area is home to the Tibetans and the Naxi people of Yunnan. It’s also the place where we can find the famous “Hanging Coffins”, the “Cave of the Three Travelers” and the Ghost city of Fengdu. It’s also home to the “Three Gorges Dam” finished in 2006. This is the largest concrete building in the world capable of harnessing the tremendous energy generated by the Yangtze. This dam is so huge, it even slowed the Earth’s rotation by .06 microseconds and shifted the pole’s position by 2 cm (.8 inches).
Around the middle part of the river we find the “Giant Buddha” statue and Mt. Emei, places of uttermost importance in Chinese culture and religion. The lower river provides the country with plenty of fish and water for irrigation. Along Yangtze’s lower banks, China generates most of its rice production. Dikes have been built at the mouth of the river thus allowing for its delta (more arable land) to expand into the sea. This mighty river also provides drinking water for some of China’s biggest cities like Chongqing, Yichang, Wuhan, Nanjing and Shanghai.