Walking across spongy tundra, among bonsai shrubs on fire with autumn colours, I came upon a river too wide to cross. Gazing up the valley from which it flowed, I saw that the obstacle blocking my path was just one strand of a broad, braided system spread languidly across a floodplain in Denali National Park in Alaska. I watched the McKinley River’s fluid columns shift apart, then twine together. Although at that time I knew little about hydrology, the science of water, on some instinctual level I understood that this was a free river. Every other river I’d known was markedly subdued.
What does it mean for a river to be free? Today, most water is not in its natural state, especially in industrialised countries. It sounds obvious, but I hadn’t before given it much thought. Humans have filled in or drained 87 per cent of the world’s wetlands. We’ve dammed and diverted two-thirds of the world’s largest rivers. What many of us think of as ‘river’ is a restricted, straightened canal that no longer wanders across its floodplains, depositing nutrient-rich, land-forming silt as it goes. The streams and wetlands that first attracted us to settle and build cities have long since been encased in pipes or filled with trash and dirt. In fact, the area of land, streams and wetlands covered by cities’ pavement has doubled since 1992. In rural areas, too, we’ve uncurled creeks, drained and filled wetlands and lakes, and blocked off floodplains to create more farmland or real estate for new developments. These attempts at control affect not only where water flows, but greatly increase the speed at which it moves. Water is sped through our cities, and prevented from sinking underground where it could refill aquifers and cycle through local ecosystems.
The scale of our efforts to control water is vast. But control is illusory. Water does what it wants, as we are seeing increasingly often, as people around the world grapple with severe floods and droughts.
In the summer of 2022, one-third of Pakistan turned into a giant roiling lake, and people walked across the dry beds of China’s Jialing River and Germany’s Rhine. At almost the same time, parts of eastern Australia were subsumed by high waters, turning cities to turbid lakes – flooding that continued throughout the year. And the giant reservoirs that feed the southwest United States lay nearly empty, revealing decades-old plane crashes and skeletal remains.
The response to such disasters is inevitably a call for bigger drains, longer aqueducts and higher levees – tighter control mechanisms. But in fact, it’s not just the climate crisis causing these water extremes. Our development choices – urban sprawl, industrial agriculture, and the way we try to control water with hyper-engineering – interfere with the water cycle, making these problems significantly worse. In the wreckage of disasters in the US, like Hurricane Sandy in 2012 or Harvey in 2017, we see that homes built atop wetlands are the first to flood. We are reminded that water has agency, and our attempts at control actually make us more vulnerable. [Continue reading…]