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Which analogues exist between rivers and the internet? At first glance, this seems to be a challenging question for an environmental historian and historical ecologist. However, one can identify similarities and tight connections. River systems are natural networks. With their dendritic composition, they connect mountains to the seas. They transport water, sediment and they are pathways for animals and plants. River networks are vectored systems as communication flows usually from higher to lower altitudes.
Since millennia, humans make use of rivers in specific ways. They put mill wheels and since the industrial revolution turbines to tap the kinetic energy of rivers. For centuries, waterways defined transport and trading routes. In order to better connect places of resources extraction, production and consumers, people built canals. They modified the naturally developed networks in desired ways using increasingly complex technologies, often operated with fossil energy. With time, human imprint on natural river networks intensified. Industrialization, urbanization and global trade required integrating rivers networks, railways and road connections. Trade has created a global transfer of virtual water. Growing belowground infrastructure interferes with surface river systems and their connected groundwater: Pipelines abstract water and transport it to people. The complementary sewage canal system receives the wastewater and moves it back to streams.
Today, river systems are no longer local or regional sources of energy, water or biomass. These fluid networks have become global and hybrid socio-ecological systems, among others deeply connected to virtual communication.
Gertrud Haidvogl is an environmental historian and historical ecologist working at the Institute of Hydrobiology and Aquatic Ecosystem Management at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU). Her research focuses on the history of rivers. She investigates their changes as ecological systems, how they were shaped by societies and how societies have in turn been shaped by rivers.
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