Carving out paths through continents and sitting still in valleys for thousands of years, the rivers and lakes of our planet are often in very close proximity to the communities in which we live.
Found in most countries of the world, our rivers are the lifeblood of the planet: starting high in hills or mountains and running down into lakes, they prevent flooding by allowing water to drain away and offer rich habitats and food sources for much of life on Earth.
Lakes, made up of still bodies of fresh or saltwater, support large ecosystems of animals and plants, regulate water flow from rivers, and can even be used as sources of hydroelectric power. They have also been popular leisure spots for day-trippers and those seeking adventure for generations.
Our wetlands, too, provide protection in ways that we possibly don’t even realise: as stores for excess rainwater and as a buffer against the sea, they reduce air temperatures, help prevent cyclones, floods and droughts, and offer a thriving ecosystem for bird, plant and animal life. In many places, wetlands are now protected from development - a clear sign that should remind us how essential they are to maintaining the equilibrium of their environment.
- V-shaped valleys
- Flat valleys
- Flood plains
- Oxbow lakes
- Running water (rivers)
- Slow-moving or still water (lakes and wetlands)
- Undrained hydric soil (wetlands)
- Water saturation (wetlands)
- Shallow waters and deeper swamps
Rivers, lakes and wetlands face a number of threats, including pollution and the emergence of invasive species that can disrupt the natural ecosystem of the river. Shallow waters that run into rivers, lakes or wetlands from agricultural land (known as “agricultural runoff”) often contain pesticides, sediments and nitrates, which can also cause water pollution. 80% of the world’s water waste is allowed to run into wetlands untreated. Wetlands are also at risk from unsustainable development, which has led to 87% of them being lost over the past three centuries.
The pollution of rivers, lakes and wetlands can cause illness, infections and death both for the plants and animals that live in or around them, and also for the human communities that rely on them for survival. Loss of biodiversity and disease amongst human and animal populations is a major issue both for the environment and for public health on a global scale.
The world’s rivers hold a wealth of opportunities for exploration. Sailing down the Amazon, the Ganges or the Okavango Delta (in Botswana) can allow you to take in the stunning wildlife and intricate ecosystems that exist in these hugely varied parts of the world. Spending time in communities along these rivers can introduce explorers to the history and to rich cultural life of the communities that call these environments home.
Depending on your location, a trip to the lakes can offer an opportunity to relax with sailing and good food (Lake Como), experience the sheer majesty of nature (in Canada), or wonder about the mythic creatures that might lay beneath (at Scotland’s Loch Ness.) Whether it’s Britain’s Lake District or Russia’s Lake Baikal, a trip to the water can leave you feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and with a renewed sense of the nature that is all around.
The steep valleys and still waters that are forged by lakes the world-over are clear examples of the power of nature. Lake Baikal, in Siberia, is on many adventurer’s bucket list, whilst the incredibly striking Lake Tahoe (on the US west coast), Lake Bled (Slovenia) and Lake Wakatipu (New Zealand) are likely to be prominent too. The world’s largest tropical wetland, the Pantanal in Brazil, is another area with top credentials for water-bound explorers.
Numerous animal species have made these habitats their home. River fish include eels, sturgeon, tench, tilapia, catfish, salmon, trout, bass and perch, whilst other animals found in rivers, lakes and wetlands are likely to include stoats, otters, beavers, weasels, snakes, turtles, alligators and water voles. Birds include swans, kingfishers, coots, herons, cranes, ducks, egrets and flamingos.
Plants and flowers can thrive in the damp environs of a river, lake or wetland. Reeds, rushes and lots of types of grass are found along river beds and near lakes, whilst plants might include iris, wild geranium and lobelia. In wetlands, moss, buttercups and marigolds might flourish.
Most countries in the world include at least some rivers, lakes or wetlands - without them, bird, animal and plant life would find it very difficult to survive. Canada, Russia, Botswana and Peru are the countries with the most areas taken up by wetlands. The world’s most famous rivers are found in Africa (the Nile), South America (the Amazon), China (the Yangtze) and the United States (the Mississippi), whilst Canada has more lakes than the rest of the world combined.