River Musings

I found a series on the colorful rivers in our world – but not the kind you’d want to raft or kayak on, because the colors are produced by toxins. The fish are dead. These ravaged rivers stand as red flags to the monumental mismanagement of our precious water resources. And though most people think these rivers exist only in China or Bangladesh, two American rivers are named in the list of most polluted rivers in the world: the mighty Mississippi River and the Cuyahoga River.

In addition to sewage, perhaps the worst pollutants in the Mississippi River are agricultural in nature. At the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico lies a so-called Dead Zone of 6,000 to 8,000 square miles. This has been created by the Mississippi’s high amount of nitrogen-based fertilizer run-off, which upsets the food chain, creating very low oxygen levels in coastal waters.

The Cuyahoga River is famous – or infamous – for having caught fire numerous times since 1868, most recently in June 1969. Flowing through the Cleveland, Ohio area, the Cuyahoga River, because it runs through a congested urban environment, has been subjected to numerous forms of pollution, particularly industrial waste, which has made it flammable at times. Interestingly, the plight of the Cuyahoga River helped promote in the late 1960s the ecological movement across the U.S., whose motto was “Ecology Now.” This joint fervor led to passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Not quite so polluted these days, since some species of aquatic life can actually survive in it, the Cuyahoga River nevertheless remains one of 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern, as it empties into Lake Erie,  once a very dirty body of water as well, though it supports fisheries of note.

Other rivers on the lists of “most polluted” include:

  • Australia (The King River)
  • Argentina (Riachuelo River)
  • Indonesia (Citarum River)
  • Italy (Sarno River)
  • India (Ganges River and Yamuna River)
  • China (Yellow River and Jianhe River)
  • Philippines (Marilao River)


Back to our colorful rivers.  These pictures are hard to integrate with my mental image of cold, clear mountain streams – though I did grow up in the south, where silt filled rivers are numerous.  But animals and fish living in or near the silt filled rivers have adapted.  There are no adaptations that make these rivers livable.  We have insisted that textile mills treat their wastewater, because textile mills are the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water in the world – agriculture holds pride of place as the #1 polluter overall, but I think “industrial” can now be applied to agriculture as well, can’t it?

White river:

This river is in China, and known as the “Milk River” because of the large amount of stone cutting dust dumped into the river.

White River

Rivers have other ways of turning white, though the culprit is still pollution. Nature-lovers were rather “irked” in April of 2009 when a 150-ft stretch of the River Irk in northwest England was subsumed in bright white foam up to 10 feet thick. A detergent factory upstream denied responsibility for the situation, stating the cause “remains a mystery.”

river Irk

Another infamous white foamy river winds its way through southeastern Brazil. The Tiete River  fills with foam which forms when water mixes with phosphate and phosphorus—ingredients found in products such as biodegradable detergents. This untreated household waste comes mostly from Sao Paulo, the biggest city in Brazil.


Photo: Paulo Whitaker, Reuters

Photo: Paulo Whitaker, Reuters


Pink River:

Check the label on your pink blouse – you can be fairly sure that where it’s made, a pink river runs through it.

Pink river

Red River:

This disturbing picture shows what looks like a river of blood. The Jian River, which runs through Luoyang City in China’s Henan Province and provides drinking water for its residents, turned red as the result of an illegal dye dump from a local chemical plant.




Orange River:

Then there’s the brilliant vermilion river, tainted by toxic tailings from a nearby nickel mine in Canada. The photograph, taken by Edward Burtynsky in 1996, depicts an eerie and forbidding landscape. Notice any trees, shrubs, a single blade of grass anywhere near its blackened shores? As Kenneth Baker wrote in his exploration of Burtynsky’s work, “enjoyment depends on our not thinking too hard about a bright orange river as a chemical and ecological reality: we know intuitively that in nature a river of this colour must spell trouble.” (Note, this image is the cover photograph on Burtynsky’s book, “Manufactured Landscapes”)

Orange river 2

Blue River:

Taken of the Shijing River in China, which has high levels of pharmaceuticals (Diclofenac) and volatile organic sulfur compounds (VOSCs), including methanethiol, carbonyl sulfide, dimethyl sulfide, carbon disulfide, and dimethyl disulfide as well as endocrine disrupting chemicals.

Blue river

Purple River:

Residents along Tullahan River have noted that multi-colored sudsy effluents have left violet-colored residue in the river water, rocks and banks. Several industries, such as paper, pen and dye factories, are located upstream from the site in this photo.

Greenpeace:  Tullahan River in Caloocan, Manila

Greenpeace: Tullahan River in Caloocan, Manila


Yellow river:

China’s Yellow River was named for the pale silt it carries, though in today’s industrialized China it may be tinted yellow or any other color due to pollution and “accidental” waste water releases. The images below show poisonous yellow bubbles floating on the river due to an oil spill.

Yellow river

Brown River:

The image below, shows kayakers making their way through the Rayonier discharge on the Altamaha River near Doctortown in Wayne County, Georgia, USA.  It was published on the front page of the Savannah Morning News, 23 June 2012. A dark, acrid-smelling discharge greeted them. “The stuff looked like oil, it looked gooey,” said kayaker Celeste Tibbets of Decatur, Georgia.

Brown River-

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published