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 mouth.
Where a river descends quickly over sloped topography, rapids with whitewater or even waterfallss 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.
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 destructon of riparian biomes. Heat 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 and waterflow is no longer bounded by seasonal changes. 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, floods are disasters, causing untold property loss each year.
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.