EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Stabilizing Water Tables: Rivers Running Dry

While falling water tables are largely invisible, rivers that are drained dry before they reach the sea are highly visible. Two rivers where this phenomenon can be seen are the Colorado, the major river in the southwestern United States, and the Yellow, the largest river in northern China. Other large rivers that either run dry or are reduced to a mere trickle during the dry season are the Nile, the lifeline of Egypt; the Indus, which supplies most of Pakistan’s irrigation water; and the Ganges in India’s densely populated Gangetic basin. (See Table 6–2.) 14

Some rivers have disappeared entirely. A few years ago, China announced plans to divert water from the Yellow River to Taiyuan, the capital of Shaanxi Province. Learning of this, I asked why they did not simply take water from the Fen, the local river that originated in northern Shaanxi and flowed southward through Taiyuan, eventually emptying into the Yellow River on the province’s southern border. Fred Crook, senior China analyst at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, responded that the Fen River had dried up. It exists only on old maps. Taiyuan is now wholly dependent on underground water resources from well fields, and some of the wells are starting to go dry. 15

The management and use of scarce water in river basins that include several countries can be difficult. The Nile, for instance, which originates largely in Ethiopia and flows through Sudan and Egypt, is reduced to a trickle by the time it reaches the Mediterranean Sea. Since it rarely rains in Egypt, the country’s existence depends entirely on the Nile. 16

Virtually all the river’s water is now being used. Against this backdrop, governments could be expected to coordinate population policy with water availability, but there appears to be no effort to do so. In Egypt, the population is projected to grow from 73 million today to 127 million in 2050. Sudan’s population is projected to nearly double, from 34 million today to 60 million. Ethiopia, meanwhile, is projected to go from 72 million today to 171 million by 2050. 17

Egypt now gets the lion’s share of the Nile’s water partly because it developed much sooner than Ethiopia. But as Ethiopia begins to develop, it is planning to build dams on the upper (Blue) Nile that will reduce the flow in the lower reaches of the Nile river basin. It will be difficult for Egypt, where incomes average $3,900 per year, to argue that Ethiopia, with incomes of only $710 per year, should not be permitted to develop its water resources. With virtually all the water in the basin now spoken for and with the combined population of the three countries projected to grow from 179 million to 358 million by 2050, the potential for the basin’s population to outgrow its water resources—setting the stage for conflict—is clear. 18

Another major river where conflicts over water rights are arising is the Mekong. China’s construction of several huge hydroelectric dams on the upper reaches of the river system is reducing the Mekong’s flow, directly affecting fisheries, navigation, and irrigation prospects downstream in Cambodia, Laos, and Viet Nam. 19

Yet potential flashpoint is the Amu Darya, a river that originates in Afghanistan and flows through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan before reaching the Aral Sea. As upstream Afghanistan stabilizes politically and begins to develop, it plans to claim some of the water from the river, which will reduce the amount available to the two downstream countries. 20

We do not know whether sharing water in the Tigris-Euphrates River basin, where irrigated agriculture began some 6,000 years ago, was a source of conflict historically in the region. But today it is a source of tension between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. In recent years, Turkey has invested heavily in a network of dams, mostly in the upper reaches of the Tigris, that are providing power and water for a large irrigation expansion. Turkey is one of the few countries in the world with a major expansion of irrigation still under way. Again, population growth is contributing to the mounting tensions in this river basin, since the populations of both Syria and Iraq are projected to double by mid-century. 21

There are literally dozens of other shared rivers where the demand for water is now pressing against the limits of supply, forcing countries to work out agreements on the allocation of river water. Once these agreements are reached, it is in each country’s interest to use its share of the water as efficiently as possible.

Table 6-2. Major Rivers Running Dry




Amu Darya

The Amu Darya, which originates in the mountains of Afghanistan, is one of the two rivers that feed into the Aral Sea. Soaring demands on this river, largely to support irrigated agriculture in Uzbekistan, sometimes drain it dry before it reaches the sea. This, along with a reduced flow of the Syr Darya—the other river feeding into the sea—helps explain why the Aral Sea has shrunk by more than half over the last 40 years.


All the water in the Colorado, the major river in the southwestern United States, is allocated. As a result, this river, fed by the rainfall and snowmelt from the mountains of Colorado, now rarely makes it to the Gulf of California.


This river, which flowed from the northern part of China’s Shaanxi province and empties into the Yellow River at the province’s southern end, has literally disappeared as water withdrawals upstream in the watershed have dropped the water table, drying up springs that once fed the river.


Some 300 million people of India live in the Ganges basin. Flowing through Bangladesh en route to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges has little water left when it reaches the bay.


The Indus, originating in the Himalayas and flowing west to the Indian Ocean, feeds Pakistan’s irrigated agriculture. It now barely reaches the ocean during much of the year. Pakistan, with a population of 157 million projected to reach 349 million by 2050, is facing trouble.


In Egypt, a country where it rarely ever rains, the Nile is vitally important. Already reduced to a trickle when it reaches the Mediterranean, it may go dry further upstream in the decades ahead if, as projected, the populations of Sudan and Ethiopia double by 2050.


The cradle of Chinese civilization, the Yellow River frequently runs dry before it reaches the sea.


Source: See endnote 14.


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14. Table 6–2 from the following: Amu Darya, Colorado, Ganges, Indus, and Nile rivers from Postel, op. cit. note 13, pp. 59, 71–73, 94, 261–62; Fen and Yellow Rivers from Lester R. Brown and Brian Halweil, “China’s Water Shortages Could Shake World Food Security,” World Watch, July/August 1998, p. 11; India Ganges population from Carmen Revenga et al., Watersheds of the World (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute and Worldwatch Institute, 1998), Section 2-78; population projections from United Nations, op. cit. note 4.

15. Fen River/Taiyuan from Brown and Halweil, op. cit. note 14.

16. Postel, op. cit. note 13, pp. 141–49.

17. Population projections from United Nations, op. cit. note 4.

18. Ethiopia and Egypt incomes from International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Economic Outlook Database, at www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo, updated April 2004; population from United Nations, op. cit. note 4; Ethiopia water development plans from Postel, op. cit. note 13, pp. 143–44.

19. Moench, op. cit. note 4.

20. Postel, op. cit. note 13, pp. 59, 94.

21. U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), “‘Garden of Eden’ in Southern Iraq Likely to Disappear Completely in Five Years Unless Urgent Action Taken,” news release (Nairobi: 22 March 2003); Hassan Partow, The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem, Early Warning and Assessment Technical Report (Nairobi: Division of Early Warning and Assessment, UNEP, 2001); population from United Nations, op. cit. note 4.


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