The Importance of Rivers [Past, Present, and Future]

The importance of rivers for human survival and our ability to thrive cannot be overstated. Rivers are not just areas of important biodiversity and home to endangered wildlife, they are also vitally important for the human race.

From the beginning of human history, we have gathered around rivers to make use of their natural resources and it can be argued that in many cases rivers gave us the ability to grow as a civilization. Even today, it is surprising just how much we still rely on rivers to support our livelihoods and economies.

The Importance of Rivers in Ancient Civilisation

Our ancestors began as hunter-gatherers. They were itinerant and roamed from place to place in order to follow the food sources where they could find them. Civilization as we know it only really began once our ancestors developed agriculture. This allowed them to have surplus food meaning that they did not have to roam to hunt or forage, which meant that they could begin to build settlements and, later, cities. Many of the first settlements were located on the banks of rivers.

Early farmers settled by rivers for several reasons:

  1. First, the supply of water was vital. Humans need a constant supply of water to survive and rivers provide freshwater that can be drunk safely.
  2. Second, the river itself could be a source of food if it contained fish.
  3. Third, the water from rivers could help with early agriculture. The remains of many early settlements can be found on natural floodplains (for example the River Nile) and this periodic flooding was utilized by early farmers for irrigation purposes.
  4. Fourth, rivers were an efficient means to transport goods and people and allowed for greater communication across long distances.

Rivers and the Birth of Religion

All of the current major religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism) hold an important role for water at the center of their religious beliefs. This can be seen in methods of purification that involve immersion in water, such as baptism and washing rituals. Water was also the bringer of destruction such as in the flood story of Noah.

The importance of water in our spiritual beliefs can actually be traced back even further than religion as we know it today. We have found symbols and engravings from Paleolithic times that have been placed in river areas that would usually be inaccessible. In the Bronze Age, many temples were built alongside rivers. These practices can also be seen from Roman times and in early Indian civilization. Water as a purifier and giver of life seems to have lent it a hugely spiritual significance to early civilizations just as it does today 

The Importance of Rivers in Modern Life

It may be surprising to learn that our modern culture, with all its technology and innovation, still relies on rivers for several important reasons.

1. Rivers and the Economy

Many people around the world still rely on rivers for their livelihoods. Freshwater fishing is an important business in many countries in the world, and many places now use rivers to farm freshwater fish such as salmon. With this method, cages are placed in rivers and the fish are kept in the cages and fed until they are big enough to be harvested.

Fisheries, including river fisheries, provide 2.6 billion people around the world with 20% of their average annual protein intake.

Modern agriculture in some areas is still reliant on natural rivers. For example, controlled irrigation is vital to be able to grow rice. In Asian countries such as China which is the largest rice producer in the world, up to 82% of the water used is in agriculture. Rivers are therefore vitally important for the population of these countries to be able to eat and to support the economy through the export of these goods.

2. Rivers and Transportation

Although we now have the use of planes, which can transport people and goods across large distances in very little time, we do still use boats and rivers for these purposes. The use of waterways to transport goods declined from the 1800s until the 1950s but has been rising steadily since then.

Some of the increase in these methods has been in response to increases in traffic congestion and some due to environmental concerns. Companies are developing innovative ways to use the natural rivers that flow through many cities to deliver goods and services. For example, in London the River Thames is now used by supermarkets to deliver goods from their distribution centers to their stores, saving an estimated 350,000 road km per year.

3. Rivers and Energy Supply

Rivers can be used to provide hydropower, which is an important renewable energy source that is now being increasingly used as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Hydropower harnesses the energy from flowing water to create electricity. Hydropower is not a new invention. In fact, we have been using hydropower in various forms for hundreds of years.

The best example of an older method of hydropower is the watermill, which used a waterwheel placed into a flowing river to power a mill that could be used to grind things like flour. Nowadays, however, the importance of using renewable energy such as water has become acute due to the rise in climate change. Some countries, such as Norway and Switzerland, now rely almost exclusively on hydropower to provide their electricity needs. 


Rivers have been a hugely important part of human life, right from the time when human life began. At their most basic level, they are a provider of fresh, safe drinking water. Beyond that, however, rivers helped to shape the early agriculture that allowed our ancestors to begin to make settlements. They were also important in the birth of early religions.

In modern life, rivers are still important for agriculture around the world and are becoming increasingly important in the transport of goods and in the development of hydropower electricity as a renewable energy source.

The importance of rivers for humans across the world shows no signs of slowing down, but in fact, seems to be increasing. As our world moves further and further away from the use of methods such as fossil fuels, we will need to work with the world’s natural resources, just as our ancestors did, to be able to carve our sustainable civilizations.

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