World Rivers Day: Environmental Challenges and Geopolitical Implications

World Rivers Day: Environmental Challenges and Geopolitical Implications
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Rivers are unquestionably the lifeblood of our planet, providing vital freshwater, sustaining ecosystems, and offering resources essential for existence. Plants and animals that live near rivers and valleys depend on clean water. However, the pollution of these essential waterways presents a serious threat to our environment and public health, demanding fast action to protect their invaluable contribution in our world.

World Rivers Day is an annual event celebrated on the fourth Sunday of September.  And in 2023, it will be celebrated on September 24. This global observance is dedicated to raising public awareness about the significance of rivers and waterways worldwide. It serves as a platform to emphasize the intrinsic value of rivers and strives to enhance public consciousness while promoting better stewardship of these essential water bodies.

In this article, we will strive to shed light on the importance of rivers worldwide, their environmental deterioration, and the conflicts and sufferings between different states over the natural flow of the river.

A Global Initiative for River Conservation:

World Rivers Day, initiated by Canadian river advocate Mark Angelo in 2005, is a decentralized global observance celebrated worldwide. This day serves as a platform to raise awareness about the significance of rivers, emphasizing their vital roles in supplying freshwater, supporting ecosystems, and facilitating transportation and recreation. It also addresses the environmental challenges and conflicts associated with these lifelines, highlighting the importance of sustainable river management.

World Rivers Day: Environmental Challenges and Geopolitical Implications
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While World Rivers Day is not directly coordinated by a specific UN agency, it actively engages non-governmental organizations, environmental groups, and local communities in river conservation efforts. These collaborative initiatives aim to protect and preserve the world's rivers, recognizing their critical importance to our planet's health and well-being.

Rivers at Risk: Solutions for a Sustainable Future

Rivers are essential sources of freshwater for drinking and agriculture, sustaining billions of lives globally. They are biodiversity hubs, housing diverse species and serving as vital habitats and migration routes. Rivers historically facilitated transportation and continue to reduce carbon emissions through cargo transport. Rivers provide recreational opportunities and attract tourists, boosting local economies while offering nature-based experiences.

Rivers encounter a multitude of challenges primarily driven by human activities. Pollution stemming from industrial, agricultural, and urban sources introduces harmful substances like chemicals, heavy metals, and plastics, posing threats to both aquatic life and human well-being. The construction of dams, river channelization, and water diversions disrupt natural flow patterns, adversely affecting ecosystems, sediment transport, and water quality.

World Rivers Day: Environmental Challenges and Geopolitical Implications
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Over-extraction, urbanization, deforestation, and climate change lead to reduced river water levels and loss of critical habitats. Invasive species and poor land management worsen these challenges also.

Protecting and restoring rivers involves reducing pollution, restoring natural riverbanks, promoting sustainable land use, conserving water, and supporting biodiversity through protected areas and climate action. Engaging communities, advocating, and educating are also key to river conservation.

Indus Water Treaty: India and Pakistan's Water Diplomacy

The Indus River is one of the most important rivers in South Asia that originates in the Himalayas and flows through India, Pakistan, and China. The Indus River and its branches are regulated under the Indus Waters Treaty that was an agreement between India and Pakistan, brokered by the World Bank, governing the use of the Indus River and its branches.

In Karachi on September 19, 1960, the Indus Water Treaty was signed by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistani President Ayub Khan, granting control of the eastern rivers (Beas, Ravi, Sutlej) to India and the western rivers (Indus, Chenab, Jhelum) to Pakistan.

While it aims for goodwill and cooperation, Pakistan remains concerned about potential water-related issues during times of conflict. Despite tensions, the treaty has largely prevented water wars, relying on legal procedures for dispute resolution. It's considered a successful but possibly needing updates for climate change challenges.

Farakka Dam's Impact: Devastating Consequences for Bangladesh

The Farakka Barrage is a dam positioned on the Hugli River in West Bengal. It was designed and built by the Hindustan Construction Company. Situated about 18 kilometers from the Bangladesh border, it is in close proximity to Shibganj.

The construction of the Farakka Barrage (Opened: April 21, 1975) has led to devastating consequences for Bangladesh, particularly during the dry season, with the Padma River experiencing almost no water flow. This has resulted in severe water crises in the southern and western regions, directly impacting over four crore people and causing a decline in biodiversity.

World Rivers Day: Environmental Challenges and Geopolitical Implications
Image Source: Google, Image By: Wikimedia Commons

More than 49 rivers have disappeared from the country's map due to Farakka Barrage, while around 100 other rivers are rapidly heading towards a similar fate. The remaining rivers are shrinking, and overall water levels decrease during the dry season, affecting underground water as well.

The Farakka Barrage has contributed to the alarming rise in arsenic contamination in Bangladesh's groundwater. Additionally, The Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, faces destruction due to heightened salinity caused by the dam.

India also bears the brunt, as vast areas in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are annually flooded due to silt buildup. The Farakka Barrage has disrupted the river's natural flow, resulting in environmental disasters upstream in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and downstream in the Sundarbans.

Recently, Bihar's Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, raised concerns about the Farakka Barrage’s impact and called for its removal to address the ongoing issues, although river experts have been unconvinced of this approach from the beginning.

Disputes over the Flow of the Nile River:

The Nile River Dispute is a long-standing conflict primarily involving Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, revolving around access to and utilization of the Nile's waters. The conflict centers on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a massive hydropower project was taken by Ethiopia on the Blue Nile, a major branch of the Nile River. Ethiopia sees the GERD as a critical development project to meet its energy needs and stimulate economic growth, while Egypt and Sudan are concerned about potential impacts on their access to water, agriculture, and electricity generation.

The Nile River Basin, covering around 10% of Africa or 3.1 million km², is one of the world's largest river basins. It stretches for 6,695 kilometers, making it the longest river globally, and is shared by eleven countries in northeastern Africa.

Around 257 million people, accounting for 53% of the total population in Nile Basin countries, reside in this region. Egypt has the largest population within the basin, with 85.8 million people, followed by Uganda with 33.6 million, Ethiopia with 37.6 million, and Sudan with 31.4 million.

Egypt relies heavily on the Nile for its freshwater supply, with over 95% of its water originating from the river. These complexities have made negotiations over the GERD and Nile water allocation highly challenging, with ongoing diplomatic efforts and international mediation attempting to find a mutually acceptable solution to ensure water security for all parties involved.

Jordan River Crisis: The "War over Water" and Regional Conflict

The "War over Water" from 1964 to 1967 involved Israel and its Arab neighbors, mainly Syria and Jordan, fighting over control of water in the Jordan River area. This tension began after agreements in 1949 and led to small fights starting in 1953. In 1955, a plan for sharing water, suggested by the US, didn't get approved, but both sides still followed some of its rules.

The big conflict heated up in 1964 when Arab countries opposed Israel's project to move water with the National Water Carrier. This led to fights along the borders and an attempt to change the flow of the Jordan River. Who controlled the water became a big reason for the Six-Day War in June 1967.

Israel, Jordan, and Palestine have been unable to reach a resolution, and the situation continues to decline. The dispute over the Jordan River highlights the challenges that arise when countries share a critical resource like water.

Resource Management Struggles in the Euphrates-Tigris Basin:

In the 1960s, Turkey initiated the GAP project (Southeastern Anatolia Project) to harness the Tigris and Euphrates rivers through dam construction, leading to water rights disputes with Iraq and Syria. Challenges in the Euphrates-Tigris basin include declining water quality and quantity, low water productivity, climate change, and dam building.

These issues have caused significant harm, including environmental damage, urban migration, and even violent conflicts in Iraq. A Human Rights Watch report delves into the water crisis in Basra, revealing that over 100,000 Iraqis were hospitalized in 2018 due to unsafe drinking water.

The Euphrates-Tigris basin covers Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, with Iran also part of the Tigris basin. Turkish dams upstream reduced the Euphrates flow into Syria by 40%, hurting Syria's agriculture. Unilateral irrigation plans and political tensions have strained relations.

This highlights ongoing problems with water sharing and resource management in the region.

World Rivers Day: Environmental Challenges and Geopolitical Implications
Image Source: Google, Image By: UN

Dnieper River: A Shared Resource under Strain

The Dnieper River, originating in Russia's Valdai Hills, flows through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea. As of April 2022, the UN reported that 6 million Ukrainians faced daily challenges accessing drinking water, with 1.4 million lacking safe water in the east and 4.6 million having limited access.

Disputes over the river's flow, primarily due to water diversion for agriculture and industry, persist among Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Political tensions have hindered resolution, underscoring the complexities of sharing this vital resource.


World Rivers Day offers a global platform for promoting the importance of river conservation and sustainable water management. This annual event aims to inspire individuals to take proactive measures and become responsible guardians of these invaluable natural resources.

It underscores the principle that access to clean, flowing water should be a universal right. It also reminds us that the natural flow of rivers has a positive impact on our lives and biodiversity.