Watersheds of the World

World Watershed Endonyms.png
Watersheds of the World, Endonyms. By Jordan Engel, 2019

From topography to hydrology, there are no shortage of ways to map our planet. And yet there is largely only one map we see on a regular basis – the political map of the world’s territorial borders. With maps such as these, we teach our children a simple story about the world being neatly divided up into nation states. Those children then grow into adults ingrained with that map as their main geographic framework. We wanted to challenge that framework, but present an alternative that is still visually familiar – something colorful and simple, evoking a typical child’s political world map. Something that is at once disorienting and grounding. For that, we turned to watersheds.

A watershed (or sometimes called a drainage basin) is an area of land where the surface water drains to a single point – normally the mouth of a river. Mapping at a global scale, watersheds present a resemblant alternative to countries, being large enough to map and small enough to be meaningful.

Each basin in this map is labelled with the river which drains that area, or for some basins which drain to a lake rather than the sea (called endoheic basins), it is labelled with the terminal lake. In one version, the basins are simply labelled in English. We felt it was necessary to make an English-only version because of how obscure watershed-based geography still is to so many people. But taking the concept further, we delved into endonyms – geographic names used by the people who are from there. Of course, rivers and lakes have different names in different languages, and no watershed is culturally homogeneous. It’s an unfortunate limitation of mapmaking that there isn’t enough space on the page to contain the vast diversity of geo-cultural knowledge that exists for each place. Our admittedly imperfect approach was to label each basin in one of the watershed’s more widely-spoken native languages, with the recognition that this map is not intended to be a definitive resource. It’s a starting place, and we all must do the work of walking further down the road of decolonization.

Though it resembles our standard political maps, this watershed map is not a call for sovereign watershed-based states. If anything, it’s a reminder that any state, anytime, anywhere, is what Kurt Vonnegut termed a granfalloon – a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is essentially meaningless. While a watershed state system might actually be a more meaningful association than the system as it currently exists, the goal of bioregionalism is not to put people into yet another statist political system to be ruled over by some bioregional leader, but to align peoples consciousness to the needs of their bioregion, identify with it, and live sustainably within it. Put another way, biogregionalism is the recognition of the interdependence that exists between all of us who share a bioregion, and an acknowledgment of our obligation to steward the resources provided by the land and water.

World Watershed Map.png
Watersheds of the World (English Names). By Jordan Engel, 2019


World Watersheds Blank
Watersheds of the World, Unlabelled. By Jordan Engel, 2019

These maps use the equal-area Eckert IV projection.

Big thanks to the folks at Bundesanstalt Für Gewässerkunde (the German Federal Institute of Hydrology) who kindly supplied us with the watershed geodata.

These maps can be reused under the Decolonial Media License 0.1. Feel free to print them yourself. The blank map is provided in hope that others will be inspired to make the map their own. If you want to, send your maps back to us at decolonialatlas@gmail.com so we can see what you did!



  1. Thought-provoking approach to challenging our contemporaneous state-reinforcing models, followed since state-building times and subsquently representing and able to serve statist thought. Thank you for sharing.


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