Know the word Potamology? Our familiarity with the term is as poor as our understanding of rivers as an ecosystem

This would have been a crorepati ‘clincher’ at the next season of Kaun Banega Crorepati. What is the common thread between Mesopotamia Hippopotamus and Potamon? The options are: Crab; Continent; River; Song.

While the person naming ‘river’ as the correct answer, would be a fitting crorepati, the question would have flummoxed most, not excluding the fabled life-lines. And herein lay the real tragedy facing our rivers.

Potamos is Greek for ‘rivers’ and as it can be easily made out that it is the root word of all the three mentioned above. Mesopotamia is the ‘land between two rivers’ (Euphrates and Tigris, in what is now Iraq); Hippopotamus is so named after ‘horse of the river’, while Potamon is the scientific name given to ‘river crabs’ found in southern Europe, west Asia through to north west India.

Potamology is ‘the scientific study of Rivers’. But the fact is that our familiarity with the term Potamology (even the online dictionary of a Sony laptop is unaware of it) is as poor as our understanding of rivers as an ecosystem. This unfortunate situation, we believe is behind the step-motherly treatment received by ‘rivers’ at the hands of most stakeholders and sometimes even of those who ought to have known — based on their education, training or experience — much better.

It was way back in 1897, when Professor Albrecht Penck lamented in an article titled ‘Potamology as a Branch of Physical Geography’ published in the December issue of The Geographical Journal that: “Of the different departments of physical geography, treating of the hydrosphere, none has advanced more slowly then the science of rivers.” He went on to write that “the science of rivers, which may be called Potamology, must be treated under five different heads. The physics of running water; the volume of water and its fluctuations; the action of water on its bed; the distribution of running water on earth; and rivers as a scene of organic life.

Prof. Penck then in the article went on to describe in great detail why the science of rivers (characterised by their running waters) deserved a special treatment and minute studies.

Unfortunately, saner voices like those of Prof. Penck were lost in the din of the 20 century grand march towards big dams; hydro-power and ‘green’ (sic) revolution, whence rivers were reduced to malleable pipes of water, and no more. Their sustained existence as a necessary ecosystem for a healthy earth and life on it was lost sight of until recently, when the ill effects of the devastated river ecosystems started to manifest themselves in ways more than one. Now there is a clamour to ‘repair’ the rivers, again in a very man’s view of the world.

Even our founding fathers while drafting the nation’s Constitution could not rise above the usual prejudices relating to rivers as mere source of utilisable water and the later planners and policy makers continued to follow suit by their inability to look, understand and safeguard our rivers beyond how much water could they provide or where a dam and their canals could be built or not. The fact that water in a river ‘runs’ and that this is its defining property seemed to remain no one’s concern.

Later realising that all was not well, man started talking in terms of providing ‘minimum flows’ in rivers as if the rivers as ecosystem could do with doles handed out by humans. No wonder, our rivers are fast approaching a possible doomsday scenario. How and in what manner would such a situation impact our ‘climate’ already struggling against man-induced green house gases, and then ultimately our own selves is still in the realm of guesswork.

To set the record straight of how should a river be holistically viewed, we have tried to make a humble attempt, based on our own understanding from many years of research and working with river Yamuna: “Rivers are natural dynamic ecological system, marked by uni-directional flow down a gradient of water, sediments and energy, with key influences on associated geo-morphology, soils, micro-climate, ground and surface water sources and the aquatic and riparian biodiversity”.

Clearly rivers are multi-hued and a promotion and practice of Potamology can thus in man’s own interest no longer be delayed.

(The writer is Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)