The Humble Sources of 10 Major Rivers

Apr 18, 2015 1 comments

The source or headwaters of a river, defined as the furthest place in that river from its estuary or confluence with another river, is an elusive concept. On a colloquial basis, some define the source of a river at the drainage basin from which water runs year-around, such as a lake. Sometimes another river may flow into the lake, in which case the source of the other river is taken as the source of both rivers, as in the case of the river Nile. At other times, the confluence of two or more rivers where the river’s name is first used is taken as the source, as in the case of the river Danube.

In many cases, it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact location from where a river begins, because a river has many sources. It often starts as a small stream but as it flows towards the sea or a lake or another river, the humble stream gathers water from numerous sources such as underground springs, rainwater, bogs, marshes and lakes and becomes a mighty river. Let us see how some of the world’s biggest river began their journey.

The Mississippi


This is how the Mississippi River starts. Photo credit

The Mississippi River is the chief river of the largest drainage system in North America flowing through 31 U.S. states and 2 Canadian provinces. It rises in northern Minnesota and flows southwards for 3,730 km to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi ranks as the fourth longest and tenth largest river in the world.

The primary source of the Mississippi River is Lake Itasca, located 450 m above sea level in Itasca State Park in Clearwater County, Minnesota. The name "Itasca" signifies the "true head" of the Mississippi River – the word is the combination of the last four letters of the Latin word for truth (veritas) and the first two letters of the Latin word for head (caput). However, the lake is in turn fed by a number of smaller streams, and by most modern definitions would be considered the actual source.

A campaign was started in 1887 to promote another lake further upstream as the true source of the Mississippi. After months surveying the lakes it was concluded that the lakes and streams further south of Lake Itasca were not the true source of the Mississippi because they were “too small.” The inflow of these streams into Lake Itasca were less dramatic than the lake's outflow. In 1891, Lake Itasca’s status was made official and a state park was created.

The Nile


One of the Nile’s sources in the Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda. Photo credit

The Nile is the longest river in the world at 6,853 km. It’s located in northeastern Africa and its waters are shared by eleven countries. The Nile has two major tributaries, the White Nile and Blue Nile. The former is considered to be the headwaters and primary stream of the Nile itself, although the Blue Nile is the source of most of the water and silt.

The source of the Nile is a matter of debate. Sometimes Lake Victoria, from where the name "Nile" first appears, is considered to be the source of the river, but National Geographic and virtually every other geographic authority and atlas define the source of the Nile River not as Lake Victoria's outlet but instead use the source of the longest river flowing into the lake, the Kagera River. However, Kagera River itself has several tributaries and sources couldn’t agree on which is the longest tributary of the Kagera and hence the most distant source of the Nile itself.

One of the tributaries, Ruvyironza, emerges in Bururi Province, in Burundi. Another tributary, the Nyabarongo, flows from Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda. One candidate for the most distant headwater of the Nile is the Rukarara River that starts in the Nyungwe Forest in western Rwanda. The Rukarara is a tributary of the Mwogo River, which in turn is a tributary of the Nyabarongo River.

The Ganges


The Bhagirathi River flowing out of the Gangotri Glacier. Photo credit 

The Ganges, the most sacred river to Hindus, rises in the western Himalayas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, and flows south and east through the Gangetic Plain of North India into Bangladesh, where it empties into the Bay of Bengal. It is the third largest river by discharge.

The headwaters of the Ganges River begin high in the Himalayan Mountains where the Bhagirathi River flows out of the Gangotri Glacier in India's Uttarakhand state at a place called at Gaumukh (literally, “cow’s mouth”), at an elevation of 3,892 meters. The name “Ganges” begins at the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers at Devprayag.

The Thames


The Thames Head at Kemble. It remains dry most times of the year. Photo credit

The River Thames flowing through London is the longest river in England and the second longest in the United Kingdom, after the River Severn. The source of the Thames is a spring called Thames Head that rises at a site in Gloucestershire, near the village of Kemble and the town of Cirencester. The place is marked by an ancient ash tree and a stone plaque. If you are lucky you can see the spring coming out of the hillsides and a pool forming at the foot of the stone. But it isn’t always like that. Usually, no sign of water can be found at the source of the River Thames.

The claim that Thames Head is the source of the River Thames is disputed. Some authorities hold that the true source of the Thames is at Seven Springs, Gloucestershire. Officially, however, Seven Springs is the source of the River Churn, a tributary of the Thames.

The Danube


The source of the Breg, the larger of two tributaries of Danube. Photo credit

The Danube is Europe's second-longest river, located in Central and Eastern Europe. The river begins at the confluence of the two headstreams: Breg and Brigach near Donaueschingen, in the Black Forest area in Germany, almost at the border with Switzerland. However, the furthest source of the Danube is a karst spring located near the castle of Donaueschingen. From there, the stream flows underground below the so-called “Danube Temple”, that is situated on the Brigach river, to its current emergence point. Officially, the Danube only comes into existence where the Danube stream connects with the confluence of the Brigach and Breg rivers.

The Amazon River


The most distant source of the might Amazon is this tiny glacial stream. Photo credit

The Amazon River in South America is the largest river by discharge of water in the world with an average discharge that is greater than the next seven largest independent rivers combined. The Amazon basin is also the largest drainage basin in the world, and accounts for approximately one-fifth of the world's total river flow.

The most distant source of the Amazon is a glacial stream located on a snowcapped 5,597 m peak called Nevado Mismi in the Peruvian Andes. The place is marked by a wooden cross. The waters from Nevado Mismi flow into the Quebradas Carhuasanta and Apacheta, which flow into the Río Apurímac which is a tributary of the Ucayali which later joins the Marañón to form the Amazon proper.

The Rhine


The flowing of the Rein da Tuma from Lake Toma. Photo credit

The Rhine river begins in the Swiss canton of Graubünden in the southeastern Swiss Alps, then flows through the Rhineland and eventually empties into the North Sea in the Netherlands. It is the second longest river in Central and Western Europe. The headwaters of the Rhine is generally regarded as Lake Toma. Its outflow is called Rein da Tuma and after a few kilometers, it forms the Vorderrhein. The furthest headwater of both the Vorderrhein and the Rhine as a whole, however, is the Reno di Medel, rising about 7.5 km south of Lake Toma. Its spring and upper reaches are located West of the Lukmanier Pass in the municipality of Quinto in Ticino.

The Volga


The source of the Volga is marked by a church built here in the early 20th century. Photo credit

The Volga is the longest river in Europe and also Europe’s largest river in terms of discharge and watershed. It flows through central Russia and into the Caspian Sea, and is widely viewed as the national river of Russia. The river rises in the Valdai Hills 225 meters above sea level, northwest of Moscow and about 320 kilometers southeast of Saint Petersburg. There is a shrine at the location in the village of Volgoverkhovye. According to an ancient legend, the water at the source is considered healing and cleansing, and has been attracting pilgrims since the olden days.

The Yellow River


All of China's Sorrow arises from this puddle. Photo credit

Called "the cradle of Chinese civilization", the Yellow River is the third-longest river in Asia and the sixth-longest in the world at the estimated length of 5,464 km. According to the China Exploration and Research Society, the source of the Yellow River is at the Bayan Har Mountains near the eastern edge of the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The place is marked by a tablet.

The Zambezi


Photo credit

The Zambezi is the fourth-longest river in Africa. The 2,574-kilometer-long river rises in Zambia and flows through eastern Angola, along the eastern border of Namibia and the northern border of Botswana, then along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe to Mozambique, where it crosses that country to empty into the Indian Ocean. The Zambezi's most noted feature is Victoria Falls. The river rises as a small bubbling stream in a jungle near Mwinilunga in the Kalene Hills, north-western Zambia, about 1,524 meters above sea level. The place is well marked and a popular tourist spot.

Article based on this Imgur album


  1. Can you do a top 10 longest sources one?


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