In the half-light of morning sunrise on the banks of the Dhaleshwari River, Bangladesh, a woman dressed in a bright blue sari carefully leads her young daughter into the water. She hopes the waters will provide them with a place to wash and cleanse themselves afresh for the coming day. Yet to reach the water’s edge, she has had to clamber down the eroding riverbank made unstable by local riverbed sand mining and climb through a wide swath of domestic and plastic waste. She now dips her hands into water covered by a thin white froth, which has come from an open sewer 30 metres upstream. As she begins her morning ritual, she glances around to see her neighbours washing themselves and their children, and the clothes of their families, in the surrounding filthy water. The waters of one of the world’s great river systems should not be like this.
The Dhaleshwari and the world’s other large rivers have nurtured and sustained the growth of human civilisation, and today they are home to huge populations and human infrastructure. These large river basins also possess a freshwater ecology that is both vital to global biosustainability as well as supporting human populations through fisheries and agriculture. However, as pressures on these great river basins grow – from burgeoning populations, energy, resource and infrastructure demands, increased agricultural, industrial and domestic water usage, as well as increased accessibility to many remote regions – so the anthropogenic stresses on these vital waterways are increasing rapidly.