Rivers of Power

Authors: Laurence Smith*, University of California - Los Angeles
Topics: Coupled Human and Natural Systems, Historical Geography, Hazards and Vulnerability
Keywords: rivers, history, borders, cities
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/8/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 3
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper introduces my book Rivers of Power, which explores the timeless and often underappreciated breadth of humans’ relationship with rivers.

These geographical features are of course important in many practical ways (e.g. water supply, transportation, sanitation), but the scale of their influence is sometimes less obvious. Rivers define and transcend international borders, creating migrant barriers while forcing cooperation between nations. Human explorations and colonizations of continents were guided by rivers. Wars, politics, and urban demography are jolted by devastating river floods. We massively engineer rivers to create food, energy, and cities. The territorial claims of nations, their cultural and economic ties to each other, and the migrations and histories of people trace back to rivers, river valleys, and the topographic relief they carve upon the world. Today, rivers remain a powerful political force and are critical as ever to our future.

The many ways that humans use rivers have varied by region and changed over time. Yet their value has persisted because they provide us with at least five fundamental benefits: access, natural capital, territory, well-being, and a means of projecting power. The manifestations of these benefits have changed, but our underlying needs for them have not.
Rivers are beautiful, but their hold over us is far more than aesthetic. Their allure stems from the intimate relationship we have shared with these natural features since prehistoric times. Our reliance on them — for natural capital, access, territory, well-being and power— has sustained us for millennia and grips us still.

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