The Amazon River

The Amazon River cuts through some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world.

5. Description

After the Nile, the Amazon River is the world’s second longest river. Most scientific publications have estimated its length to be around 6,400 kilometers (3,977 miles), and its width, depending on the season and location, can span from 1 to 35 miles, according to the Smithsonian Institute. Every second, the Amazon River on average discharges 219,000 cubic meters of water, sourced from 1,100 individual tributaries, according to a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report. Before draining into the Atlantic Ocean, the river’s drainage basin snakes its way through 7 South American countries, according to the National Geographic Society. These countries are Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, and Brazil. At the peak of the wet season, the Amazon River’s currents reach speeds of 7 kilometers per hour.

4. Historical Role

The Amazon River was “discovered” and so named by Francisco de Orellana, a Spanish explorer and conquistador in 1541. He named it in honor of the female warriors he met on his voyage, who reminded him of the race of female warriors from Greek mythology. In Earth's geological record, the Amazon River is thought to be around 100 million years old. The Amazon River is within the expansive Amazon Biome, which still serves as the historically important home to 2.7 million indigenous people, according to the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA). Many of these continue to depend on the river for their very survival. As the Amazon River occupies seven countries, the utilization of its resources has often resulted in conflicts. As a result, laws and treaties have been drafted over the years to avert conflicts. One such treaty was entered between Ecuador and Peru in 1998, and was dubbed the Ecuador-Peru Commerce and Navigation Treaty. According to Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, the treaty granted Ecuador rights to the shared rivers and increased access to the Amazon, though the borders were largely settled on Peru’s terms.

3. Modern Significance

Amazon River’s water resources account for 20 percent of all of the freshwater in the world. The river has about 3,000 species of fish, many of which are caught for human consumption within the basin's residential and commercial communities, while many others serve as ornamental species for the aquarium trade. On the Brazilian side of the Amazon River, the fisheries trade generates just over 168,000 jobs, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. To spur development, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Bolivia alike have constructed transport systems to facilitate trade within and between their respective borders. The Amazon River is also visited by tourists, researchers, and film makers to explore and enjoy its vast array of unique flora and fauna. Dams for hydroelectric power have also been developed along the river, especially on the Brazilian side.

2. Habitat

The Amazon River is nestled in the world’s largest tropical rainforest, wherein the climate is generally warm and humid most of the year round. As a result, there are diverse habitats to be found sprawled along the Amazon River. These are inclusive of swamps, marshes, and streams, that are themselves inhabited by a diversity of wildlife species. The over 370 types of reptiles, 3,000 freshwater fishes, and 400 amphibians that live there, and these depend on the Amazon River for survival, according to WWF. Some of these fascinating creatures are the Giant Amazon River Turtle, Boa snakes, alligators, Anacondas, Dwarf Caimans, Piranhas, a variety of ray-finned fishes, and crocodiles. There are also mammals like the Amazon River dolphins, Giant otters, and Tapirs living there as well. On many of the Amazon's river banks, Machaerium lanatum shrub thickets grow in abundance as well, according to WWF.

1. Threats and Disputes

Lately, the Amazon River ecosystem has come under increased threats from a barrage of human activities. The overfishing of large freshwater species, deforestation, mercury pollution by artisanal gold miners in streams, increased population growth, untreated sewage runoff, and road and dam construction are just some of the ongoing human activities the WWF cites as being detrimental to the Amazon River and its surroundings. The endangered freshwater Amazon River dolphin, for instance, is highly vulnerable to this ecosystem disruption. This dolphin is spread along the Orinoco River Basin, and its estimated population is in just the tens of thousands. Sedimentation in the Amazon River is also occurring due to soil erosion caused by deforestation, according to a study by the Woods Hole Research Center, further disrupting the riverine habitats in turn.


More in Environment