With its origins in British Columbia, Rivers Day has now evolved into a global event celebrating the values of our waterways while also urging the need for better stewardship.
By Mark Angelo
This post is part of a special news series on global water issues.
As final preparations are being made for World Rivers Day, which will take place later this month, I’ve found myself thinking a lot recently about the origins of this important and timely event. And while World Rivers Day as a global phenomenon has been around for only 6 years, it’s beginnings go back much further than that.
I’ve had a love for rivers ever since I was a child. Yet, I didn’t have to be very old before I gained an appreciation of the many threats that confront our waterways. As an example, living beside the Los Angeles River as a boy, I spent a great deal of time along this once productive stream that was now entirely encased in a massive concrete culvert. And then, during a trip to Arizona in the early 60’s, I saw the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam that flooded one of the most beautiful canyons in the United States. Moving to Montana, I lived close to the Miltown Dam on the Clark Fork River, the upstream stretch of which had become one of the more toxic sites in the country as a result of accumulating mining residue.
During my years in Montana, I became an avid paddler and fly-fisher, exploring many of the state’s great rivers in the process. So when I had the chance to move to British Columbia in the early 70’s, I looked forward to living in a province renowned for its many great waterways. I was also excited about living close to the Fraser River, one of the world’s great salmon rivers.
Yet, despite its abundance of incredible waterways, I was surprised that there wasn’t an event of some kind that celebrated the importance of rivers. In an effort to address this, we approached the Province of BC in 1980 about endorsing an inaugural Rivers Day event that would take place on the last Sunday in September. To commemorate that, we organized a clean-up on the Thompson River, a major tributary of the Fraser.
On that day, working with groups such as the Outdoor Recreation Council of BC, a flotilla of rafts and a group of 40 volunteers collected a massive amount of garbage and debris while also making arrangements with local towing companies to remove several abandoned cars that sat on the rocks above the river. The event was a great success! That evening, all the participants got together and talked about how rewarding the day had been (it was also a lot of fun!). Everyone was keen to do it again so the following year, we went ahead and planed a few additional events. Once again, they were all successful so we planned a few more the year after that. And before we knew it, the event took on a life of its own.
Initially known as BC Rivers Day, this celebration grew to include festivities around the province involving up to 75,000 people. Events ranged from stream cleanups and habitat enhancement projects to educational outings and community riverside celebrations.
Given the success of this initiative in British Columbia, I couldn’t help but think there was potential for a similar event internationally, especially in light of the positive response to the United Nation’s International Year of Fresh Water in 2003. When the UN then announced that they would embark on the Water for Life Decade commencing in 2005, an initiative aimed at increasing awareness of the importance of our global water resources, we saw a great complimentary fit for the establishment of a formal World Rivers Day.
Consequently, we approached agencies of the UN, including the United Nations University and the International Network on Water, Environment and Health. We received their blessing and, in September of 2005, the first World Rivers Day was celebrated. Since then, we’ve formally partnered with the UN’s Water for Life Decade initiative and the event has grown in leaps and bounds.
This year, dozens of countries and millions of people will be involved in Rivers Day celebrations. Events will take place from Canada to South Africa; from England to the Caribbean Island of Dominica; from Poland to the United States; and from India to Taiwan. And while these events will help to create a greater awareness of the natural, cultural and recreational values of our rivers, they’ll also strive to encourage participants to become even more active as river advocates and stewards.
The growing interest in World Rivers Day, now coordinated by the Rivers Institute at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, is very timely in that rivers around the globe are facing increasing pressures, ranging from urbanization and pollution to the building of dams and the excessive extraction of water. Climate change is also increasingly taking its toll on many rivers. If events like Rivers Day can help to profile these issues while also engaging the public and creating an even greater appreciation of the many values of our waterways, then it can only be positive.
My hope is that, on September 26th, people around the world will take time to think about their local rivers and streams. Hopefully, we’ll also consider how we might better care for them. For many, they may be able to attend a nearby Rivers Day event, or perhaps even plan one of their own. If nothing else, Rivers Day is a wonderful and appropriate opportunity to simply get out and enjoy a nearby stream and contemplate just how much they contribute to our quality of life.
Coming back to British Columbia, many of our Rivers Day events this year will focus on the recent return of 34 million sockeye salmon to the Fraser River; our biggest run in 97 years. After several years of poor returns and lots of disappointment, we now have something to celebrate. And while many challenges and threats to our rivers and fish stocks remain ahead, this year’s magnificent salmon return offers a glimmer of hope.
Mark Angelo is the chair of the Rivers Institute at the British Columbia Institute of Technology and an internationally acclaimed river conservationist. He has received the Order of Canada, his country’s highest honor, in recognition of his river conservation efforts both at home and abroad. He received the United Nations International Year of Fresh Water Science, Education and Conservation Award, the Order of British Columbia, the National River Conservation Award, and an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University. He is a Fellow International of the Explorers Club. Angelo is the chair and founder of World Rivers Day, an event celebrated across dozens of countries on the last Sunday of each September. He has traveled on and along close to 1,000 rivers around the world over the past 5 decades. He has authored numerous articles and papers about rivers and his expeditions, including the Riverworld presentation launched in concert with National Geographic Online in 2003 and shown to audiences across North America.
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