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For the Second World War frigate class, see River class frigate. For the state of Nigeria, see Rivers State.

A river is a large natural waterway. It is a specific term in the vernacular for large streams, stream being the umbrella term used in the scientific community for all flowing natural waterways. In the vernacular, stream may be used to refer to smaller streams, as may creek, run, fork, etc.

Passage via a river or stream is the usual way rainfall on land finds its way to the ocean or other large body of water such as a lake. A river consists of several basic parts, originating from headwaters or a spring at the source, that flow into the main stream. Smaller side streams that join the river are tributaries. Water flow is normally confined to a channel, with a bottom or bed between banks. The lower end of a river is its base level, commonly called its mouth, a river typically widens at its end and forms what is known as a delta or estuary.



A waterfall on the Ova da Fedoz, Switzerland.
A waterfall on the Ova da Fedoz, Switzerland.

A river conducts water by constantly flowing perpendicular to the elevation curve of its bed, thereby converting the positional energy of the water into kinetic energy. Where a river flows over relatively flat areas, the river will meander: start to form loops and snake through the plain by eroding the river banks. Loops that are formed are sometimes cut off, forming a shorter river channel and leaving a remnant, oxbow lake. Rivers that carry large amounts of sediment develop conspicuous deltas at their mouths. Rivers whose mouths are in saline tidal waters may form estuaries.

There are 4 main types of rivers. They are: youthful, mature, old, and rejuvenated.

Youthful river - a river with a steep gradient that has very few tributaries and flows quickly. Its channels erode deeper rather than wider.

Mature river - a river with a gradient that is less steep than those of youthful rivers and flows more slowly than youthful rivers. A mature river is fed by many tributaries and has more discharge than a youthful river. Its channels erode wider rather than deeper.

Old river - a river with a low gradient and low erosive energy. Old rivers are characterized by flood plains.

Rejuvenated river - a river with a gradient that is raised by the earth's movement.

Where a river descends quickly over sloped topography, rapids with whitewater or even waterfalls occur. Rapids are often used for recreational purposes (see Whitewater kayaking). Waterfalls are sometimes used as sources of energy, via watermills and hydroelectric plants.

Rivers begin at their source in higher ground, either rising from a spring, forming from glacial meltwater, flowing from a body of water such as a lake, or simply from damp, boggy places where the soil is waterlogged. They end at their base level where they flow into a larger body of water, the sea, a lake, or as a tributary to another (usually larger) river. In arid areas rivers sometimes end by losing water to evaporation and percolation into dry, porous material such as sand, soil, or pervious rock. The area drained by a river and its tributaries is called its watershed or catchment basin. (Watershed is also used however to mean a boundary between catchment basins.)

Starting at the mouth of the river and following it upstream as it branches again and again the resulting river network forms a dendritic (tree-like) structure that is an example of a natural random fractal.

See also


The flora and fauna of rivers are much different from those of the ocean because the water is fresh (non-salty). Living things in a river must be adapted to the current of the moving water.


Human pollution of rivers is common, and very few rivers in the world today are clean of man-made substances. The most common pollutant is sewage piped into rivers, but chemical pollution is also common, and industrial accidents (and/or negligence) account for much of the destruction of riparian biomes. Heated water dumped into rivers by power plants and factories also affects river life.


In places where the elevation changes of a river are great, dams for hydroelectric plants and other purposes are often built. This disrupts the natural flow of the river, and creates a lake behind the dam. Often the building of dams affects the whole of the river, even the part above the dam, as migrating fish are hindered (see fish ladder), waterflow is no longer bounded by seasonal changes and sediment flow is blocked. Dams are useful in many ways, such as providing HEP, acting as regulator of river flow so as to regulate the occurrence of flooding, which is especially important to wet-rice agriculture, and also to improve navigation and transport on the river. Often, dams such as Hoover Dam along Colorado River become famous tourist attractions. However, critics of dams, especially 'Green' advocates, argue that dams remove upper-river biodiversity such as through deforestation and forced migration of rural villages and indigenous tribes. Furthermore, trapping of river sediments behind the dams lead to salination and loss of nutrients for down-water fish. It also raises concern of eathquakes due to instablity of incompetent dams which have to support thousands of tonnes of sediments behind them. One very famous, and problematic, dam is the Aswan High Dam in the Nile.


Flooding is a natural part of a river's cycles. Human activity, however, has upset the natural way flooding occurs by walling off rivers and straightening their courses. Removal of bogs, swamps and other wetlands in order to produce farmland has reduced the absorption zones for excess water and made floods into sudden disasters rather than gradual increases in water flow. In ancient Egypt, life was made possible through the floods of the Nile and the accompanying silt and sediment which enriched the fields with fresh nutrients. Nowadays, since people have built on these floodplains, floods are disasters, causing untold property loss each year.

Human interference in the form of deforestation can also worsen conditions. The removal of vegetation leads to a reduction in Interception (vegetation stopping precipitation) and the 'weakening' of soil since plant roots no longer hold it together. As a result there is a reduced Infiltration capacity (how much water the soil can hold) and greater infiltration (precipitation going into the ground). This leads to faster soil saturation and therefore greater overland flow (also known as surface run off) and therefore, there are flash floods as the lag time decrease.


Logjams are barriers within rivers, created by dead and uprooted trees. Over time, the obstruction prevents further logs to bypass, resulting in the creation of new network channels. According to author David R. Montgomery in his book, King of Fish, a logjam also causes water to buildup within a small space, forming peaceful pools within the main channel for young salmon to live within. The existence of these deep pools along with the complex web of channels creates an ideal salmon habitat. Today, many believe that the rebuilding of salmon runs is contingent upon reproducing the same environment shaped by logjams. As a result, many scientists have attempted to recreate artificial logjams. Marc Duboiski and Mike Ramsey of the Salmon Recovery Funding board staff, George Pess of the National Marine Fisheries Service, and Kevin Bauersfeld of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have prepared the Report to the Salmon Recovery Funding Board On the Engineered Log Jam (ELJ) Workshop ([1]), with the hope of mimicking natural logjams.

Small river in rural Indiana. Rivers of this size are often referred to as a "creek."
Small river in rural Indiana. Rivers of this size are often referred to as a "creek."


Rivers may be crossed by fords, bridges, ferries or tunnels.



In its natural state a river may be inconvenient to man in a variety of ways. Rivers in inhabited areas have therefore been managed or controlled to make them more useful and less disruptive to human activity.

  • The river channel may be dredged to make it deeper for navigation or to prevent flooding.
  • Dams (see above) or weirs may be built to control the flow, store water, or extract energy.
  • Levees may be built to prevent flooding.
  • Sluice gates provide a means of controlling flow and adjusting river levels.
  • floodways may be added to draw off excess river water in times of flood.
  • Canals connect rivers to one another for water transfer or navigation.
  • River courses may be modified to improve navigation, or straightened to increase the flow rate.

River management is an ongoing activity as rivers tend to 'undo' the modifications made by man. Dredged channels silt up, sluice mechanisms deteriorate with age, levees and dams may suffer seepage or catastrophic failure.

River lists

(See also Category:Lists of rivers.)

The world's ten longest rivers

It is difficult to measure the length of a river, mainly because rivers have a fractal property, which means that the more precise the measure, the longer the river will seem. Also, it's hard to state exactly where a river begins or ends, as very often, upstream, rivers are formed by seasonal streams, swamps, or changing lakes.

This is an average measurement.

  1. Amazon (6,762 km)
  2. Nile (6,690 km)
  3. Yangtze (Chang Jiang) (6,380 km)
  4. Mississippi-Missouri (6,270 km)
  5. Ob-Irtysh (5,570 km)
  6. Huang He (Yellow) (5,464 km)
  7. Amur (4,410 km)
  8. Congo (4,380 km or 4,670 km). (The source of this river is disputed.)
  9. Lena (4,260 km)
  10. Mackenzie (4,240 km)

For a longer list see Longest rivers. This also gives more information on measuring river lengths. Note that some sources list the Nile as the longest river in the world.

Well-known rivers (in alphabetic order)

Other lists

Rivers in myth and fiction

Real rivers

Mythological rivers

Fictional rivers

See also

External links

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