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Category: Freshwater Trail (page 2 of 2)

Why rivers meander

Have you ever wondered why rivers in their lower courses — in the plains — meander? This video is a fantastic primer for the intercourse of land and river.

This mid 20th century map traces the course of the Mississippi as it floods its plains, silts, up, carves new channels, makes ox-bow lakes, all the while meandering at will through the years. (Mississippi River Meander Belt: Cape Giradeau, MO–Donaldsonville, LA,” from Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River, by Harold N. Fisk, 1944).

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Feeling the pinch

The mighty Brahmaputra river spans a whopping 7 km at Dibrugarh, Upper Assam, India. A writhing pile of fat water and sand snakes that wanders and meanders, protean, amorphous, and willful.  The only way to cross this river is by jumping on a ferry and hoping it makes it across, escaping shoals lurking just under the muddy surface. Jeeps, cars, motorcycles, chickens, goats, people, they all jump on the hourly ferry that runs south bank to north bank. Reaching the ferry dock is not trivial either. The road is a dustbowl, also protean, hostage to the whims of the wandering river.

A bridge across the Brahmaputra would be a boon to all, if executed correctly.

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Four rivers

Rivers are forces of nature, but over time, humans have learned to harness their power and change their course — often for the worse

The intro to a Longreads collection on four mighty rivers and what we are doing to kill them resonates. After all, Peepli as a concept began with this Arati Kumar-Rao exploration of the many ways in which another of the world’s storied rivers, the Brahmaputra, is at increasing risk. Here, the four stories from the Longreads collection:

The Ganges: Holy, Deadly River

Move still further downstream and you reach Varanasi. I assume that this — the cultural heart of India and of Hinduism and, it is said, the world’s oldest living city — must be the place to understand what is being done to the Ganges and why Indians so abuse the river they worship. At dawn near the ghats (the riverside steps) and funeral pyres, holy men meditate and pilgrims bathe. A pair of dogs fight over charred human remains on the muddy shore (one scientist has calculated that 32,000 human corpses are cremated here each year, with 200 tonnes of half-burnt human flesh discharged into the Ganges). The rotting remains of a monkey, its face distorted in a watery rictus, is caught on a boat’s mooring line. A rotund man snorts like a hippo­potamus as he swims across to the far bank and a yoga lesson broadcast by loudspeaker punctuates the subdued roar of awakened humanity.

Killing the Colorado — a fantastic, and fantastically well conceptualised, Pro Publica project on the myriad ways in which a river that sustains 40 million Americans is being choked to death

River of Death: Pegged to the death of a young boy, Steve Fisher investigates how American companies dump toxic waste into Mexico’s storied Santiago River

The San Jacinto, and the toxins that flow through it — this story, via the Houston Press, is notable for the many themes it shares with the Ganges, the Colorado, the Santiago. And the Brahmaputra. Different rivers, same old story.

Bonus link: Chasing the Sacred, Peter McBride’s exploration of the Ganges from source to sea, underlines many of the themes and points Victor Mallet makes in the FT piece linked to above.

(Lead image courtesy Der Spiegel)


A little recognition, a small fillip

In a sense, it all began here — with Arati Kumar-Rao pointing out one day that water is the most under-reported — and paradoxically, most pressing — of the issues confronting us.

We thought there was something to the idea, but didn’t quite know what. And so, in the spirit of figuring things out by doing, she started with River Diaries — an exploration of water and related issues, with the Brahmaputra as the spine of the narrative.

Early on in the project, Arati decided to take a boat trip up the Sunderbans. And in the midst of what should have been a routine ride, she experienced something disturbing:

Suddenly the GolPata abandoned the center of the river and veered sharp left. “Look!” Caesar called out. A ship, the size of a three-storey building, bore down on us. Some distance behind it, hanging a right on the horizon, loomed another. And another. And another. They kept coming: massive oil tankers and noisy cargo ships, all churning heavily through the Sundarbans.

“The usual channels have silted up,” offered Alom, referring to Ghasiakhali — a river channel so overrun with shrimp farms and embankments that the silt carried by these rivers, having nowhere to go, sits heavily in the main channel.


Watching a cargo ship power through the channel, I was not so sure. These monsters were noisy and fast and dirty. They were an unwelcome incongruous presence in the quiet of the mangrove forest. Several oil tankers followed these cargo ships. I shut my mind to the dread of what might happen here, should fate be tempted once too often, running one of these run dirty guys aground.

The experience proved prophetic — not long after, an oil tanker crashed, flooding the delicate Sunderbans ecosystem with thousands of litres of oil. That day, we learnt that in slow journalism, you don’t chase the headlines. You don’t have to — if the field-work is strong, if the reporting is detailed, the stories anticipate the headlines.

That was the proof point we were looking for; the validation of an idea. From that experience, the concept of Peepli took shape; Rahul Bhatia joined in with his immersive reporting on development, and Kalyan Varma followed soon after with compelling tales from the fault-lines at the intersection of man and nature.

Last week, the Society of Environmental Journalists announced its awards, the 14th in an annual series. And to our delight, picked that early story of Arati’s on the oil spill, for an Honourable Mention in the Outstanding Environmental Photojournalism category, where the winners include the likes of Robb Kendrick, Matt Black and Jim Richardson.

Of Arati’s work, the judges said (emphasis ours):

“Arati Kumar-Rao’s entry, “Oil Spill in the Sundarbans”, was also awarded an Honorable Mention for a very well done, one-day shoot of an oil spill in Bangladesh. Rich details, with a good scene setter, Kumar-Rao’s camera takes us on an immersive, first-hand visit to a community reeling from a devastating oil spill. It’s hard to imagine how the photographer could have gotten any closer.”

Bingo. That is the validation we had been seeking — the belief that to tell it right, you have to get as close to the story as you possibly can.

The full list of awards is here, and it incorporates links to some amazing — and vitally important –storytelling. And here, Arati’s story, Oil Spill in the Sunderbans, plus much more in the related stories segment.

Of shrimp and storms and carbon sinks, of mangroves and slaves …

Mangroves are murky, beautiful worlds of shifting margins. They’re neither land nor water. Neither river nor sea. They’re everything at once, yet not any one thing at any time. And these silty fringes of green are more important in the fight against climate change than any other ecosystem.

Mangroves sequester as much as 50 times more carbon than do tropical forests of the same area.

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Where Rivers Run Black

Last year NASA released a map that should be a wakeup call for each one of us.

“You are,” it screamed across patches of warning-red spanning all of India, “consuming way more than the natural recharge rate of aquifers. Beware, your water reserves are running out.”

India extracts more groundwater than any other country in the world. Runner-up China uses just half the amount India does. Further, our water is grossly contaminated in many places — and that toxic brew is what a large percentage of our population consumes every day.

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