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Sports for Cleaner Rivers

Ashish Karnavat ( is a doctoral research scholar at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune.

Rivers of developing world are subjected to tremendous amounts of water pollutants, mainly due to economic reasons such as the race to produce cheaper goods, paucity of funds, toothless environmental regulations, and deep-rooted corruption. Using a river-based sport, if a multi-nation rowing league is created, the media, corporate and government attention could create an economic system that will help give an impetus to river cleaning and maintenance, where nothing significant has been achieved in spite of institutions like the World Bank pouring in billions of dollars.

A few years ago, an evening spent on the banks of the River Rhine in Basel etched an everlasting imprint on my mind. People walking along the riverside in the evening, some seated along the pavement, music in the background, street-food aroma in the air; in short, it was a mesmerising view. Just then, I saw a few people jump into the cool river water along with these unique float bags (stuffed with their clothes and belongings). My colleagues told me that these people were using the river water current to reach their homes after work, somewhere downstream. They will get off the river, dry up, dress up and walk back home. My jaw just dropped in disbelief! What better way to blend leisure with everyday travel in today’s bustling world.

Even today I wonder if something similar could ever happen back in my hometown, in Asia.

‘Elite’ Sport of Rowing

Rowing traditionally has been a sport of the privileged. Important reasons being prohibitive cost of the equipment, expensive transportation, prolonged training requirements and non-accessibility to rowing-friendly waters; thus, making this sport confined to only a few (Wessells 2011: 59). Even today, almost all the topmost rowing athletes of the world belong to the developed nations (World Rowing nd). Even with the advent of newer technology and practice equipments, it is a surprise that a country like China has not been able to make a dent in this sport.

Can developing nations get their hands onto this supposedly elite sport? Would this sport still be an out-of-reach sport if these nations are determined and use their expertise of manufacturing, technology and frugal innovations, along with government and corporate funding, to make this an accessible sport? Can they come together to create a parallel to the Commonwealth Games, for the sake of their rivers?

Since rivers are the primary source of groundwater creation, its cleanliness is of prime importance to all. Today, many developing nations are facing huge crises of polluted rivers. In fact, many are spending large sums on cleaning up their rivers. In recent years, the World Bank (2011a) allocated a billion dollars for the reduction of pollution of the river Ganga in India. Similar funding examples have also been found for the river Nura in Kazakhstan (World Bank 2011b), the river Danube in Eastern Europe, and the river Markina and 19 other rivers in the Philippines (World Bank 2013). But, if this was just a problem of funding, then the problem would have been solved by now. However, since the issue still persists, we should understand that the problem is not that simple and has other important facets.

The major cause for river pollution is said to be the release of untreated domestic wastes and industry dumps (UNW-DPC 2015), and regardless of the existing policies on river water pollution, there has been very little success so far. The blame could be attributed in a major way to economic reasons, like the rat-race of the developing nations to produce cheaper goods, paucity of funds, poorly staffed river monitoring authorities, toothless environmental regulations, and deep-rooted corruption. Addressing the above issues directly will take a lot of time, education, awareness, and a nobler political will, which will take decades going by its current pace.

Instead, can we think of a system that will generate revenues for businesses and governments if rivers are cleaner? If such a possibility could be explored, then, we can expect businesses and governments to use their lobbying and funding power to keep the rivers clean for their own benefit. Aligning revenues with clean rivers will create a sustainable manoeuvre to keep the rivers clean, creating a win-win situation for all.

Economics of Big Sporting Leagues

It is astonishing as to how much revenue global sporting-league events, like the English Premier League (United Kingdom), National Football League (NFL; United States) and Indian Premier League (India) garner from advertisers and sponsors. In fact, the major revenues of these sporting leagues flow in mostly from other businesses in the form of sponsorship and advertising. Money also flows in from stadium tickets and franchise merchandise, but it is just a fraction of the overall revenue. The key here is the viewership, which, like any other business, is built up over years and is a result of factors like entertainment quotient, competitive balance, aesthetics, players, and match quality, amongst others (Garland et al 2004: 7).

Television channels purchase broadcasting rights from the sporting leagues, generally through a bidding process, and then sell advertisement slots during match broadcasts to those wanting to advertise their products or build brands. Just to give an example of the levels of revenues generated by television channels, a 30-second advertisement slot during the 2016 NFL Superbowl game cost a whopping $5 million to advertisers in the US (Groden 2015).

Now, let us consider a possibility of initiating an international river-based rowing league, having participants from developing nations and select city-teams from every country requiring river-rehab. The competitions are then hosted on the rivers of all the hometowns of the participating teams.

Television channels are roped in for attracting global viewers, and advertisers and corporates for their sponsorship. Now, to have a successful event, the first requirement will be clean and beautiful rivers, infrastructure, live audience to witness the event, good rowing athletes and an entertainment factor for the audience. Thus, this unique sporting endeavour will create enough impetus to set the river-rehab ball rolling, compelling the dormant local governments and authorities to swing into action to work on their rivers, working hand-in-hand with the sponsors and advertisers for its success. And, since the growing markets in these countries are up for grabs by so many multinational corporations, it does not seem that it would be a tough task.

Technology: The Game Changer

Now, the big question is of creating a viewership base for this new sport. Usually countries have their own favourite sports that are more popular than the others—like its football, baseball and basketball in the US, whereas soccer, rugby and cricket are highly popular in the UK—but sports economists, based on data, claim that favourite sports are fast changing with changing success or failure of national sportspersons and evolving technology (Gratton and Solberg 2007: 117).

Again, with the technological revolution in the telecom/internet business, the dynamics of the business of media is fast changing. Digitisation has been a game changer as recording live programmes on a click of a button, watching television on the go on computers and on mobile phones is a reality today, thus, challenging the age-old claim that “there are only a few popular games in a country.” A few examples, like the Ultimate Fighting Championship in the US and Indian Super League in India, have recently proved that technology combined with other requisite factors can create a viewer base of millions over just a few years (Tainsky et al 2012: 43; Sharma and Bhattacharya 2015; IBEF and TechSci 2016). The millions of hits on their videos via the internet, social media and mobile phones are definitely worth studying.

Hence, with the help of these innovative and digitised marketing initiatives, we can try and promote an “international rowing league event” between multiple developing nations. Not to forget, the main objective here is the cleansing of the rivers on a sustainable basis.

Later, as the sport develops and viewership rises, this mega-event sport can on its own generate sufficient funds for sustainable maintenance of the rivers. Also, based on the staggering penetration of telecom and computers in the developing nations, an enormous market of sport-lovers is waiting to be tapped, which can completely change the viewership dynamics of media companies (IBEF and TechSci 2016).

River Interlinking and Inland Waterways

We all understand that global warming is increasing the levels of seawater and, thus, threatening the existence of many waterfront regions of the world (World Bank 2010). Second, for an “international rowing league” to exist, steady rivers would be key, for practising as well as for the events.

The solution to both these problems lies in an idea propagated by engineer Arthur Cotton during the British colonial rule in India in the 19th century, of a “Rivers Inter-Link Program.” He proposed the plan to interlink major Indian rivers in order to hasten import and export of goods from its colony in South Asia, as well as to address water shortages and droughts in south-eastern India (Sangwan 2016: 1).

Now, if this river-linking plan is implemented wherever suitable, it could not only create a steady flow of river water for all major rivers throughout the year, but also prevent the disposal of freshwater in the sea, thus also helping reduce seawater levels and maintain a steady supply of groundwater to the water-deprived regions in the developing world. There can be endless growth possibilities for agriculture, drinking water, and inland waterways with such a project, and not to mention our sporting event as well.

Considering the involvement at all levels of governments, corporates and media for this mega multi-country rowing event, can we expect a push to the concept of linking of rivers and regulating the flow of fresh water in the country?

Also, as per research reports, usage of inland-waters for public and goods transportation can substantially improve environment quality (IWAT-India 2016). The only gigantic task is having a river with a flow of clean and steady water and the requisite infrastructure. Cities like Paris, Venice and Prague are epitomes of how cities use inland water for not just transportation, but also for its beautification, making it a coveted tourist destination.

With an international rowing league in existence and the requisite infrastructure in place along with clean rivers flowing through the city, it is just a matter of time before the avenue of inland waterways can be explored in every city. Cheaper and environmentally friendly public and goods transport systems can be a reality along with increased tourism, all in all generating additional revenues.

There have been umpteen challenges for all the above-mentioned issues since the recognition of the issues themselves is required further. The idea here is to sculpt an innovative way out of all those challenges and, if possible, weave them together with a single thread (here, the sport of rowing) and set the ball rolling.


Garland, Ron, Terry Macpherson and Kay Haughey (2004): “Rugby Fan Attraction Factors,” Marketing Bulletin, Vol 15, pp 1–12.

Gratton, Chris and Harry Arne Solberg (2007): The Economics of Sports Broadcasting, London and New York: Routledge.

Groden, C (2015): “This Is How Much a 2016 Super Bowl Ad Costs,” Fortune, 6 August,

IBEF and TechSci (2016): “Entertainment,” India Brand Equity Foundation and TechSci Research,

IWAT-India (2016): “Citizen Charter of Inland Waterways Authority of India,” Inland Waterways Authority of India, Ministry of Shipping, Noida.

Sharma, Ravi Teja and Arka Bhattacharya (2015): “About 80 Million of ISL’s Viewers Now from Non-urban Areas: Star,” Economic Times, 30 November,

Sangwan, D A (2016): “Interlinking of Indian Rivers: A Boon for India,” Global Journal for Research Analysis, Vol 5, No 1.

Tainsky, Scott, Steven Salaga and Carla Almeida Santos (2012): “Determinants of Pay-per-View Broadcast Viewership in Sports: The Case of the Ultimate Fighting Championship,” Journal of Sport Management, Vol 27, No 1, pp 43–58.

UNDP (1999): “Developing the Danube River Basin Pollution Reduction Program,” June, United Nations Development Programme, New York.

UNW-DPC (2015): “Report on the Achievements during the International Decade for Action Water for Life, 2005–2015,” UN-Water Decade Programme on Capacity Development, Bonn, Germany.

Wessells, A T (2011): “The Ultimate Team Sport? Urban Waterways and Youth Rowing in Seattle,” The Paradox of Urban Space: Inequality and Transformation in Marginalized Communities, S Sutton and S Kemp (eds), New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 53–71.

World Bank (2010): “World Development Report 2010: Development and Climate Change,” World Bank, Washington DC.

— (2011a): “IN National Ganga River Basin Project (P119085),” World Bank, Washington DC,

— (2011b): “Nura River Clean-Up Project (P059803),” World Bank, Washington DC,

— (2013): “Philippines: Providing Sewerage and Sanitation Services to over 3 Million People,” 8 April, 2013/04/08/philippines-manila-third-sewerage-project.

World Rowing (nd): “Top 10 Rowers,”

Updated On : 5th Sep, 2017


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