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The World's Great Rivers

Exploring the Human Connection

"The river itself has no beginning or end… At what point in its course does the Mississippi become what the Mississippi means?"

T.S. Eliot

Throughout the world's history, civilizations have risen and fallen along the banks of the world's many great rivers. Their contributions to humanity have been immeasurable.

The great Tigris-Euphrates river system cradled one of our earliest cultures. The Ganges in India is a source of spirituality and a place of renewal, and the Mississippi River gave inspiration to writers and artists. Rivers were our earliest pathways, allowing us to transport goods great distances. They provided fish, water and other natural resources that fueled the rise of industry.

Their significance to humanity was a driving force behind the creation of the Great Rivers Partnership, an ambitious effort to guide protection of the world's imperiled freshwater systems and transform the way large working river systems are preserved and protected. It is a collaborative partnership, spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy, that seeks to heal our rivers.

Floodplain Rivers

Great Rivers encompass so much — from their beginning, formed from seemingly insignificant brooks and seeps, to their end at the ocean. Tremendous varieties of freshwater habitats thrive in river systems; each adding to the rich diversity of life found in them. Indeed, large rivers are so complex ecologically that scientists long have been challenged to understand how they function, making conservation more difficult.

Generally, great rivers are defined as large-floodplain rivers with seasonal floods sufficiently long-lasting and predictable so that plants, animals and people can depend upon them for survival.

Harnessing the World's Rivers

The delicate balance between humans and rivers began to change in the 1900s, when people started to think of rivers primarily as agents of economic and social opportunity, simply waiting to be sculpted. What followed was a century of profound alteration.

"River after river was transformed for human purposes as the U.S. economy's demand for water, electricity, and flood protection grew. Much of the world embarked on a similar path, often aided by U.S. engineers eager to share their experience and expertise," wrote Sandra Postel and Brian Richter, a Conservancy scientist, in Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature.

A Framework for Conservation

Today, with the lessons learned since then and recent advancements in technology, humanity is ready to embark on a new path of river management. The Great Rivers Partnership reflects the Conservancy's intent to build strong relationships between people who believe the economic, cultural and ecological values of rivers can be developed in concert.

The partnership is focusing its on-the-ground work on the United State's Mississippi, Brazil's Paraguay-Paraná rivers and China's Yangtze. Science and conservation efforts at these sites will be integrated by the Great Rivers Center for Conservation and Learning, the science center of the partnership, working to ensure experiences and lessons are captured at these sites and applied to the other great rivers of the world.

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