In February, I decided to fundamentally alter my project i.e. a whole new project. I still wanted to create a pedagogical tool but had instead to create something that could be used students and teachers in the K-12 system. While a course website is still a great idea, I realized that it was out of the bounds of this fellowship, for now. In hindsight, that was a good decision because the stage that I was at, of scanning materials and recording lectures, would have been impossible in light of the pandemic.
My alternative idea was to create a website that catalogued all the river borders in the world. The attempt of the website is to offer a visual representation of river borders to put them in historical and geographical perspective. This website could easily be used to teach a world history/global environmental history.
Because rivers tend to be mobile, they make tricky border markers. Take for example, the Rio Grande, whose movement has created issues for surveyors as to where the border truly lies, and subsequently for the border wall. Depending on which source and when it was made, the border line was far from static along the Rio Grande. This wasn’t an isolated case. This is true of so many rivers across the world. Thus, one of my initial challenges was finding reliable information. Many years ago, when I had just begun working on the Detroit River, I chanced upon the international River Boundaries Database (IRBD) at Durham University, a database of all border rivers across the world which includes all recognized and de-facto international boundaries. Wherever possible, the IRBD also has GoogleEarth files that allow the user to see a particular border river section. The good folks at the IRBD even measured the sections on GoogleEarth! The IRBD remains one of the primary databases that I use. Its granular data is impressive. But it is, perhaps also the one thing that needs working on. It is extremely tedious to have to navigate every river section one at a time. Thus, the need for this website.
My doctoral project is on a border river, the Detroit River. I have been thinking for a while about rivers and borders and this website is an extension of my doctoral research. One of the first things I realized when I began working on the Detroit River is that there is no visual representation (that I am aware of) that puts together all the river borders of the world. Why is this important? One, rivers have long been border-marking allies. They are natural frontiers. A cursory look at the map of the world will show the sheer scale of rivers that act as borders. Two, borders and rivers make sense in context. River basins are also often times international. Being able to analyze rivers, river basins, and borders at a global scale would allow us to understand how primary, secondary, and tertiary streams of the same river can also function as international borders. Thus, further bringing into focus how interconnected border and river issues are. Three, and this is a selfish reason, the website gave me an opportunity to find out more about rivers and borders that I did not know about. For instance, I didn’t know that the Indo-Myanmar border consisted of 43 river sections, most of which are unmarked on Google Maps. I did not know how many rivers in the Amazon basin also form national borders.
This website then is partly an extension of my current research and a foray into new areas. Given how late in the day I changed courses, making it will be a challenge. But that is also part of the excitement, stay tuned!
* A much belated post.