There is growing awareness that climate change has the potential to deepen inequalities, especially regarding the threat of riverine flooding. For example, the United States published its Fifth National Climate Assessment in 2023 and for the first time dedicated an entire chapter to Social Systems and Justice (Marino et al. 2023). But just as importantly, how we decide to respond to climate change also runs the risk of having disproportionate and differentiated impacts (Petersen & Ducros 2022). We must ask ourselves: Resilience and adaptation for whom?
The Tamar is a relatively modest river. With a length of just 61 miles, and an average discharge at the upper tidal limit of just 807 cubic feet per second, it is dwarfed by other British rivers such as the Severn and the Thames. But despite its small scale, the Tamar has a heightened cultural significance: for more than a thousand years it has served as the border between the bulk of England to the east and Cornwall—a region with some distinct quasi-national characteristics—to the west. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century travel writers’ accounts of crossing this border have tended to construct the Tamar as a site of absolute transition from familiarity to otherness—a construction which has at times intersected with (and arguably informed) the emergence of modern identities of difference from within Cornwall.
The Mississippi River, among many names, is known as “The Backbone of America,” and has played a major role in shaping the lives of the Indigenous people, European colonizers, and others throughout the rest of the nation and the world. The river flows approximately 2,340 miles beginning at its source at Lake Itasca in Clearwater County, Minnesota through the center of the continental United States to 100 miles downstream of New Orleans, Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. Its tributaries (e.g., the Arkansas River, the Illinois River, the Missouri River, the Ohio River, and the Red River) reach from east and west across much of the United States of America. Prior to the emergence of trains in the late nineteenth century, the Mississippi River served as a major throughway to transport cargo and passengers destined for both domestic destinations and for larger ships where captains would continue their voyage out to ocean and into ports located in other parts of the world.
On a cool November day, I floated in the middle of Amistad Reservoir, a lake formed by a dam on the Rio Grande. I was swimming from the United States to Mexico and back, a ten-mile round trip. From the middle, I could see two of the widely spaced buoys that mark the path of the river under the reservoir, one on either side of me; up on the dam, I could see two flags waving in the wind, one for each country. But in the water itself, there was no way to tell if I was in the United States or Mexico, no line to mark the boundary between the two nations. My body floated in both countries and in neither. There was no border; there were only the water and the sky.
On a map, the defined line of a river makes a compelling case for becoming a border. The line crisply delineates one space from another, dividing lands and creating distinctions between peoples, cultures, economies, and more. Certainly, these bodies of water have been adopted as borders with some frequency. A recent study published in Water Policy determined that rivers currently make up 23 percent of international borders, not to mention creating borders at provincial, state, and local levels as well (Popelka and Smith 2020).
Rivers might appear to be a natural or even an expedient way to demarcate political borders. Yet rivers are always in flux as flows of water, sediments, and fish and aquatics shift with the rains and tides. For rivers to serve as borders, individuals, communities, and governments engage in a range of efforts, such as erecting walls, fences, or signs, underlining the reality that borders are actively constructed through contested sociopolitical processes and in everyday life.
Abandoned homes with boarded up windows. Mold growing up the walls of houses flooded under five feet of water. The charred remnants of entire neighborhoods turned to ash. Fields of white cotton turned brown, the soil below choked with drought. In his new book, The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration, Jake Bittle paints a startling picture of the havoc climate change is wreaking upon various regions of our country. But more stark than the images of the landscapes destroyed are the stories of the humans who call these places home.
This year the heat of the desert grew, and the absence of water only became more stark against that rapidly rising contrast. Tucson, my home, set a new record of 11 consecutive days of temperatures exceeding 111 degrees Fahrenheit by the middle of July, 2023. In other areas of the state where I travel, such as the community of Ajo, we have experienced even hotter temperatures with multiple days’ highs hitting 114 degrees Fahrenheit. Even the saguaro/Ha:sañ, forever existing in this place, began to curl in on themselves in a concave dehydrated bow. In Southern Arizona, where we write of the dry river beds and the wall corralling (some in, some out), it might appear paradoxical to highlight water—this small but ultimate presence—as the center of things.
How much is the world’s most productive river worth? Here’s how experts estimate the value of nature: Southeast Asia’s Mekong may be the most important river in the world. Known as the “mother of waters,” it is home to the world’s largest inland fishery, and the huge amounts of sediments it transports feed some of the planet’s most fertile farmlands. Tens of millions of people depend on it for their livelihoods.
We are three people who draw on research and practice to create arts-based learning, engagement materials, and interventions with and for diverse audiences. We purposefully integrate and apply different artistic methods in non-artistic disciplines, such as ecology and environmental conservation, physics, climate science, and human health. We came to know each other and work together through a four-year project that was awarded to the lead author and focused on rivers in a fragmented world. Our project had local and global foci on rivers, and many of the activities, including those shared in this article, were designed with and for people in the United Kingdom but with a view that the ideas could be adapted and applied in other contexts.