The creation of the Rivers and Heritage network is testimony to the local initiatives springing up around the world, all with the aim of learning about and raising awareness of rivers and the cultures surrounding them. These experiences take myriad forms, depending on the local context: resource centres, public information points, museums… Often supported by local communities, the common denominator is the role they play in finding a new position for the river in local development policy, and in taking the social and cultural concerns of river users to a wider scale (nationwide, or across the river basin). These projects, frequently led by individuals or civil society associations, are inherently flexible and can vary in structure: River centres are not, strictly speaking, institutions, but rather spaces for dialogue, with varied status and form.
The emergence of this movement to “reappropriate cultural ownership of the river”, seen on all continents, is often a reaction to or result of concerns over major construction work involving rivers (e.g. dams, dykes and regulation of the river bed). These infrastructures, designed to fulfil legitimate economic needs, can often have harmful consequences on the ecological balance of a river and on the living conditions of local people. They can also break the link between humans and the environment, and weaken cultural values and expression related to the river’s presence. Whether a river has already undergone extensive construction work or the modifications are still in the pipeline, the stakes remain the same: to balance the needs of residents with the conservation of the river’s natural and cultural resources.
This can be seen in Africa in particular, where rivers which have as yet seen only limited development will be subject to far-reaching change over the next few decades. Many hydro-agricultural or hydro-electric infrastructures are either in the construction or planning stages. Their impact on rivers and their users raises a number of questions.
(translated from French by Jacqueline Graves)