The lives and livelihoods of riparian communities in regions such as the Peruvian Amazon are attuned to seasonal fluctuations of river flows, creating regimes of river time.
Credit: Alvaro del Campo, The Field Museum

By Sue Jackson, Elizabeth Anderson, Natalia Piland, Solomon Carriere, Lilia Java, and Timothy Jardine.

This Plain Language Summary is published in advance of the paper discussed. Check back soon for a link to the full article.

Our worlds are full of rhythms – we often think of them as events that follow a pattern, such as seasons, tides, work shifts, school holidays, religious rituals. Some of the world’s most culturally significant rhythms relate to the movement of water in rivers. We can see the association between rhythmic movement and life in what we understand rivers to be – rivers are alive, they pulse, they are lifeblood.

In this paper we define social and ecological relationships with rivers in terms of flows, a starting point that stresses the vitally important temporal dimensions of moving water. To do this we advance the idea of river rhythmicity which refers to periodic, recurrent phenomena – both social and ‘natural’ – that are synchronized with the rise and fall of river water.

The paper surveys the different ways that river rhythms are imagined across academic disciplines and shows how to think about rivers in a way that transcends a single academic discipline. We hope that this approach will also resonate with river-dwelling communities.

Our approach centers the human experience by showing howmany different and interconnected rhythms make up what we call river time. To ground our discussion in practical, lived experience, we share two accounts of lives lived in rhythm with rivers, one from the ice-covered Saskatchewan River in northern Canada, and another from the tropical floodplains of the Amazon River in Colombia. We also describe ways in which these rivers’ rhythms, which include those of human communities, are vulnerable to disruptions from activities such as dam construction and deforestation. We show how renewed attention to river rhythmicity can reveal intimate relationships between people and rivers that persist and evolve despite these disruptions. Local and diverse knowledges are necessary for sustainable relations with rivers, and an approach centred on rhythmicity can enhance the dialogues crucial to those endeavours.

Having worked in river conservation, research and management for many decades, our writing team argues that approaches to river conservation and water management need to better understand the role of flowing water in a river’s life and its role in the lives of riparian human communities as they work in conjunction to produce dynamic riverscapes. We suggest that river rhythmicity can serve as a platform for better understanding how we shape the world and, in turn, are shaped by it.