In this article, author and Pulitzer prize-winning poet Robert Hass writes about the physical state of rivers around the globe. He points to the historical significance of rivers as well as to their cultural and environmental importance. Events throughout history have occurred by the banks of rivers, including the development of life and civilization, exploration, communication and commerce. Hass describes that one is confronted with "the human history of rivers" as one travels the world. He recounts his experiences on the banks of three rivers from his worldly travels: the Danube River in Europe, the Huangpu in China, and the Nile in Africa. Hass deepens his argument through his environmental observations, cultural stories of various regions, and poetry from Czeslaw Milosz, T.S. Eliot, and Vasko Popa. Rivers illustrate and symbolize our ancestral connection to the earth, which Hass urges us to reclaim.
The protection of global rivers, including water conservation and river restoration, is critical to the health of humans and ecosystems. Ecologists and scientists have warned for years that the flow of rivers, which provides fresh water supplies, will severely decrease due to the impact of climate change. With the construction of hydropower dams and other development projects, river ecosystems are at risk. River pollution, as a result of runoff and sewage dumping, is a health and safety concern, and the increase in waterborne diseases poses threats to human lives and natural wildlife.
Hass is dedicated to the advocacy of healthy rivers and watersheds. He co-founded River of Words, an environmental education project that was founded to give new life to the teaching of art and poetry through watershed exploration. The project hosts an annual international contest for K-12 students.