The Environmental History of Rivers and International Politics

It has become quite a cliché to observe that rivers are important to the wellbeing of human societies around the world, but what exactly is this importance? Physically, we depend on rivers as a source of drinking water, food, sanitation, and transport. However, if we reflect further, the river’s importance goes beyond simply its material contributions to our lives—the river is also important for the political and spiritual meanings we have always attached to the vivacity of the river’s flow, its violence during storms, and its placidity during moments of quiet contemplation.

The entwined material and ideational significance of the river can perhaps best be illustrated in the way rivers both connect and separate. They served as a highway for explorers, merchants, and conquerors to reach distant lands just as they have been used as borders between kingdoms—in fact, the word “rival” comes from the Latin rivalis or ‘”one who uses the same stream.” Rivers do not only connect and divide earthly kingdoms—the river Styx famously connected the land of the living to the dead, and Julius Caesar’s Rubicon represents the boundary between a past to which we cannot return and our future destiny. They take us to otherworldly realms from the Rhinemaidens, guardians to the Rhine’s gold, to Mamy Wata, the half-woman, half-fish river goddess of West Africa. By being both physical and metaphysical conduits, all rivers have a “transboundary” quality.

Environmental historians such as David Blackbourn, Peter Coates, Mark Cioc, and Sarah Pritchard have long written about the entangled human-nature stories that play out along the world’s rivers. In The Ideal River, based on my PhD research, I highlight the importance of rivers in the history of global politics by examining how international society has worked to transform rivers around the world into the ideal river.

What is the “Ideal River,” you might ask?

The ideal river is a social construction in our collective geographical imaginations—a construction in the making since the intellectual shifts of the European Enlightenment when society’s confidence in science’s ability to control, order, and improve on nature grew to dominate our understanding of the world. The ideal river is imagined as a rational and reliable highway that facilitates the seamless movement of goods, people, and ideas. And in doing so, it enriches the state, enlightens the populace, and brings liberal progress along the metaphorical river of history. Fashioning the ideal river is central to our modern desire to create neatness, predictability, defined borders, and a straightened sense of political purpose. Furthermore, efforts to create the ideal river underpinned efforts to establish the first international organizations of the nineteenth century along the Rhine, the Danube, and the Congo. I will elaborate on these three examples of international rivers to showcase their role in global politics and the entwined physical and ideational importance of rivers.

The creation of the ideal river is not just about notions in our heads—it is about how our ideas are intimately intertwined with the materiality of the river. The history of a river cannot be disentangled from the societies that have dreamed along its banks, bathed in its waters, and engineered its shorelines—just as the history of those societies cannot be disentangled from the rivers that watered their fields, cleansed their cities, and carried their ideas and institutions to new shores.

The Rhine flows 1,250 kilometres from streams that empty into Lake Constance (aka the Bodensee) to Rotterdam, and cuts across the bloody history of Franco-German contestation over territory, power, and European supremacy. Since Julius Caesar observed in his writings that Germanic tribes settled on the right bank of the Rhine and Gauls on the left (an exaggerated claim), this river has been envisioned as the “natural” boundary between France and Germany—a division that Cardinal Richelieu adopted into French foreign policy in the sixteenth century. When Louis XIV captured Strasbourg in 1681, he was simply extending France to its natural borders “jusqu’au Rhin.” In the eighteenth century, treaties fixed France’s boundaries along the Rhine—but there was a problem. The Rhine changed courses during the year, and islands or villages that were French in the spring would be German by winter. Hence, the river had to be rectified—deepened and straightened to create a consistent border for human politics. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna created the first intergovernmental organization— the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine—to ensure cooperation between European neighbours over this shared highway. But this did not stop Alsace and Lorraine, located on the Rhine’s left bank—the “naturally” French side—from becoming a flashpoint for conflict into the twentieth century. Once constructed, the idea that the Rhine formed a natural and unchangeable border between nations became hard to undo.

Showing plans to straighten the Rhine near Ketsch (1833), Wikimedia Commons.
[Image description: an earthy-toned map depicting the swirly flow of a river and a linear river straight through that. The topography lines and names of the region are visible, in the rightbottom corner it says “Die großen Rohrwiesen”.]

The Danube offers another example of the river’s material and ideational importance in global politics. It is the second longest river in Europe and flows 2,860 kilometres from Germany’s Black Forest to the Black Sea. It flows through ten current European countries and all of European history since Marcus Aurelius stood on its banks and looked across at the German “barbarians” on the opposite shore. Perhaps this is where he penned his famous Meditations in which he compares time to a river where all things are “swept away in its turn.” Conquering armies from the Romans in the first century to the Ottomans in the seventeenth century and the Duke of Marlborough in the eighteenth century used the Danube on their way to victory or defeat. Near its mouth in Romania, rather than heading straight into the Black Sea, the Danube turns north and slows down. Then it turns east again and forms the bucolic marshlands of the Danube delta. This peculiar hydrological quirk reduces the speed of the river and contributes to the build-up of sediment at the river’s mouth—navigational barriers that frustrated global commerce in the mid-nineteenth century and became the focus of Anglo-Russian rivalries over how to establish “civilized” control over this troublesome geography. The 1856 European Commission of the Danube—the first truly international organization with the non-riparian states of Great Britain and France sitting on the Commission and holding joint authority over territory half a continent away—was established to tame the Danube delta and render the river safe for global shipping. Today’s international organizations including the United Nations can trace its intellectual origins to this early commission.

Trajan’s Column, a depiction of the Roman Army crossing the Danube River, Wikimedia Commons.
The large figure is a personification of the Danube.
[Image description: a marble relief that depicts a figure in the middle, with soldiers carved to its right side.
On the left, a boat with some cargo in it and above some buildings.]

A final example of the river’s importance to global politics is the Congo. It is the second longest river in Africa and flows 4,700 kilometres in a semi-circle from the East African highlands to the Atlantic Ocean—it crosses the equator, making water levels consistent year-round. The most impressive characteristic of this river is the way it drops 300 meters in the final 350 kilometres before it reaches the ocean, sending 40,000 cubic meters of water per second rushing into the sea and creating a dark yellow footprint that can be seen many kilometres from shore. Hence, modern-day Kinshasa, located 300 kilometres inland was the prosperous centre of Congo trade long before Europeans arrived. Despite all its hydrological marvels, however, thanks to Joseph Conrad’s chilling prose, the Congo is suspended forever in the Western imagination as the heart of darkness. At the 1885 Berlin Conference, European empires colluded to control the Congo and transform it into an ideal colonial highway that would bring the three Cs—commerce, Christianity, and civilization—to this backwards darkness. Their failure to do so resulted in the death of millions along the river, revealing the depth of their hubris.

Mouth of the Congo River (March 2, 2015), NASA/USGS Landsat 8; Norman Kuring, GSFC.
Image description: A satellite image of a brown-ish river flowing through a landscape of different green tones, with a sediment plume on the left side where the river’s mouth meets the blue-toned sea.]

These histories of early international efforts to actualize the ideal river tell us a lot about the current international (and planetary) order—its aims, its hopes, and its moral aspirations, but also its blind spots, its anxieties, and its nightmare. It shows how the physical characteristics of the river intertwine with our ideas about the river to create meaning and hence political possibilities. But also, how those meanings also create rigid boundaries and hierarchies that have the potential to legitimate injustice and destruction.

*Cover Image : The Mackenzie River in Canada (July 18, 2017), NASA/USGS Landsat 8; Norman Kuring, GSFC.

[*Image description: A satellite image of swirling, multi-colored river with its sandy banks reaching into a tree-lined shore.]

*Edited by Natascha Otoya, reviewed by Emily Webster.