Before rail and cars, rivers served as transportation routes, linking cities and regions in countries around the world. Working rivers are as essential to the social and economic prosperity of the regions they serve as other forms of infrastructure. While moving people and goods around are a big part of a river’s function, they also provide populations with food and water for both drinking and other human activities, such as agriculture and electricity generation. Today, working rivers are often associated with history, and the role they’ve played in the development and exploration of different countries and civilizations. However, many of these rivers are just as important to the populations they serve today.
Generally, working rivers are sources of fresh water that provide many benefits. These contributions are usually related to industry and social wellbeing, making the long-term sustainability of rivers essential to earth’s populations. If rivers are no longer able to “work” for local economies and populations, an existential threat arises to those who rely on that water to sustain themselves.
The exploration of Canada would not have been possible without rivers, which helped make this vast country navigable. Once people got to where they wanted to be, the river continued to work for them, and cities and towns quickly developed beside rivers to support industry and human life.
With advancements in transportation, rivers don’t receive as much attention as they once did. However, settlements along rivers primarily use them as channels to transport goods between cities and ports. For example, in Central Africa, the Congo River is the main conduit for trade between countries and provinces in a basin home to over 115 million people.
In BC, the Fraser River serves as a working commercial route, facilitating the transportation of all sorts of goods and supporting industries such as fishing and agriculture. The Fraser Valley, which runs along the south bank of the river from Richmond to Greater Chilliwack, is home to some of Canada’s most fertile farmland.
As well as industry, working rivers are vital to the social wellbeing of their regions, serving as a source of food and fresh water for human activities. While fresh water only makes up about one percent of the earth’s surface, roughly 40 percent of the planet’s more than 28,000 known species of fish are found in lakes, rivers, and streams.
For many indigenous populations living along working rivers, fish stocks are a very important part of their diet and culture. In BC, Fraser River salmon is inextricably tied to First Nations’ history, and has been their most important food source for generations, along with sturgeon and other fish found in the Fraser.
According to UBC’s Indigenous Foundations, Coast Salish First Nations have managed Fraser River fisheries and lived off salmon for thousands of years. For local First Nations communities, salmon is not only a dietary staple, but is of cultural and ceremonial importance.
Like all ecosystems, working rivers cannot sustain communities unless they are properly looked after. The importance of river stewardship has grown in in recent years, especially in rapidly-developing regions like Central Africa and South America, the respective homes of the Congo and Amazon basins. Deforestation and mineral exploitation has contributed to increased degradation of the Amazon and Congo rivers, and overfishing has led to a shortage in food for indigenous populations who depend on those waters to sustain themselves.
The Fraser River has experienced its share of challenges, most of which are related to declining salmon runs, and the balancing of industry and environmental interests. If the Fraser is to continue working for First Nations and all its stakeholders, consensus is that private, public, and indigenous stakeholders must be involved in developing lasting solutions for the river.
If you want to learn more about the various working rivers in this article, consider visiting the Fraser River Discovery Centre, located on New Westminster’s Riverfront at 788 Quayside Drive, where many of the issues concerning working rivers are featured in the Centre’s self-guided galleries and exhibits.