Rivers have been used as a source of water, for obtaining food, for transport, as a defensive measure, as a source of hydropower to drive machinery, for bathing, and as a means of disposing of waste.
Rivers have been used for navigation for thousands of years. The earliest evidence of navigation is found in the Indus Valley Civilization, which existed in northwestern Pakistan around 3300 BC. Riverine navigation provides a cheap means of transport, and is still used extensively on most major rivers of the world like the Amazon, the Ganges, the Nile, the Mississippi, and the Indus. Since river boats are often not regulated, they contribute a large amount to global greenhouse gas emissions, and to local cancer due to inhaling of particulates emitted by the transports.
In some heavily forested regions such as Scandinavia and Canada, lumberjacks use the river to float felled trees downstream to lumber camps for further processing, saving much effort and cost by transporting the huge heavy logs by natural means.
Rivers have been a source of food since pre-history. They can provide a rich source of fish and other edible aquatic life, and are a major source of fresh water, which can be used for drinking and irrigation. It is therefore no surprise to find most of the major cities of the world situated on the banks of rivers. Rivers help to determine the urban form of cities and neighbourhoods and their corridors often present opportunities for urban renewal through the development of foreshoreways such as riverwalks. Rivers also provide an easy means of disposing of waste-water and, in much of the less developed world, other wastes.
Fast flowing rivers and waterfalls are widely used as sources of energy, via watermills and hydroelectric plants. Evidence of watermills shows them in use for many hundreds of years such as in Orkney at Dounby Click Mill. Prior to the invention of steam power, water-mills for grinding cereals and for processing wool and other textiles were common across Europe. In the 1890s the first machines to generate power from river water were established at places such as Cragside in Northumberland and in recent decades there has been a significant increase in the development of large scale power generation from water, especially in wet mountainous regions such as Norway.
The coarse sediments, gravel, and sand, generated and moved by rivers are extensively used in construction. In parts of the world this can generate extensive new lake habitats as gravel pits re-fill with water. In other circumstances it can destabilise the river bed and the course of the river and cause severe damage to spawning fish populations which rely on stable gravel formations for egg laying.
In upland rivers, rapids with whitewater or even waterfalls occur. Rapids are often used for recreation, such as whitewater kayaking.
Rivers have been important in determining political boundaries and defending countries. For example, the Danube was a long-standing border of the Roman Empire, and today it forms most of the border between Bulgaria and Romania. The Mississippi in North America and the Rhine in Europe are major east-west boundaries in those continents. The Orange and Limpopo Rivers in southern Africa form the boundaries between provinces and countries along their routes.
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