EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 3. Emerging Water Shortages: Disappearing Lakes

As river flows are reduced or even eliminated entirely and as water tables fall from overpumping, lakes are shrinking and in some cases disappearing. As my colleague Janet Larsen notes, the lakes that are disappearing are some of the world’s best known—including Lake Chad in Central Africa, the Aral Sea in Central Asia, and the Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Tiberias). 43

Many U.S. lakes have not fared well either. In California, Owens Lake, which covered 200 square miles when the last century began, has disappeared. After the Owens River was diverted to thirsty Los Angeles in 1913, the lake lasted little more than a decade. 44

California’s Mono Lake, geologically the oldest lake in North America and a popular feeding stop for migratory water birds, is a more recent victim of Los Angeles’s seemingly unquenchable thirst. Mono Lake has experienced a 35-foot drop in its water level since 1941, when the diversion of water from its tributaries to Los Angeles began. 45

Reuters reporter Megan Goldin writes that “walking on the Sea of Galilee is a feat a mere mortal can accomplish,” due to receding shores. When I first saw the Jordan River as it enters Israel from Syria, its frailty was obvious. Indeed, in many countries it would be called a creek or a stream. And yet it has the primary responsibility for supplying water to the Sea of Galilee, which it enters at the north end and exits on the south end, continuing southward some 105 kilometers before emptying into the Dead Sea. 46

With the Jordan’s flow further diminished as it passes through Israel, the Dead Sea is shrinking even faster than the Sea of Galilee. Over the past 40 years, its water level has dropped by some 25 meters (nearly 80 feet). As a result of diversions from the Jordan River as it flows southward in Israel as well as fast-falling water tables on the Jordanian side, the Dead Sea could disappear entirely by 2050. 47

Of all the shrinking lakes and inland seas, none has gotten as much attention as the Aral Sea. Its ports, once centers of commerce in the region, are now abandoned, looking like the ghost mining towns of the American West. Once one of the world’s largest freshwater bodies, the Aral has lost four fifths of its volume since 1960. Ships that once plied its water routes are now stranded in the sand of the old seabed—with no water in sight. 48

The seeds for the Aral Sea’s demise were sown in 1960, when Soviet central planners in Moscow decided the region embracing the Syr Darya and Amu Darya basins would become a vast cotton bowl to supply the country’s textile industry.

As cotton planting expanded, so too did the diversion of water from the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea. As the sea shrank, the salt concentrations climbed until the fish died. The thriving fishery that once produced 50,000 tons per year disappeared, as did the jobs on the fishing boats and in the fish processing factories. 49

With the 65-billion-cubic-meter annual influx of water from the two rivers now down to 1.5 billion cubic meters a year, the prospect for reversing the shrinkage is not good. With the sea’s shoreline now up to 250 kilometers (165 miles) from the original port cities, there is a vast area of exposed seabed. Each day the wind lifts thousands of tons of sand and salt from the dry seabed, distributing the airborne particles on the surrounding grasslands and croplands and damaging them. 50

At a 1990 Soviet Academy of Sciences conference on the future of the Aral Sea, there was an aerial tour for foreign guests. Flying over this area in a World War II–vintage single-engine biplane a few hundred feet above the dry, salt-covered seabed, I noted that it looked like the surface of the moon. There was no vegetation, no sign of any life, only total desolation. 51

The disappearance of lakes is perhaps most pronounced in China. In western China’s Qinhai province, through which the Yellow River’s main stream flows, there were once 4,077 lakes. Over the last 20 years, more than 2,000 have disappeared. The situation is far worse in Hebei Province, which surrounds Beijing. With water tables falling fast throughout this region, Hebei has lost 969 of its 1,052 lakes. 52

Lakes are disappearing in other Asian countries as well, including India, Pakistan, and Iran. For example, numerous lakes have disappeared in India’s Kashmir Valley. Lake Dal, at one time covering 75 square kilometers, has shrunk to 12 square kilometers. With water tables falling in so much of India, many lakes are disappearing and others are shrinking fast. 53

Population is also outgrowing the water supply in Mexico. Lake Chapala, the country’s largest, is the primary source of water for Guadalajara, which is home to 5 million people. Expanding irrigation in the region has reduced water volume in the lake by 80 percent. 54

Lakes are disappearing on every continent and for the same reasons: excessive diversion of water from rivers and overpumping of aquifers. No one knows exactly how many lakes have disappeared over the last half-century, but we do know that thousands of them now exist only on old maps.

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43. Janet Larsen, “Disappearing Lakes, Shrinking Seas,” Eco-Economy Update (Washington, DC: Earth Policy Institute, 7 April 2005).

44. David Maisel, “Lake and Bake: Photos of the Once-Mighty, Now-Drained Owens Lake,” Grist Magazine, 19 January 2005.

45. Larsen, op. cit. note 43; “Statistics: The Measurements of the Mono Basin,” Mono Lake Web site, www.monolake.org, updated 4 January 2005.

46. Megan Goldin, “Israel’s Shrinking Sea of Galilee Needs Miracle,” Reuters, 14 August 2001; Jordan River diminishing from Annette Young, “Middle East Conflict Killing the Holy Water,” The Scotsman, 12 September 2004.

47. Caroline Hawley, “Dead Sea ‘to Disappear by 2050,’” BBC, 3 August 2001; Gidon Bromberg, “Water and Peace,” World Watch, July/August 2004, pp. 24–30.

48. Quirin Schiermeier, “Ecologists Plot to Turn the Tide for Shrinking Lake,” Nature, vol. 412 (23 August 2001), p. 756.

49. “Sea to Disappear within 15 Years,” News 24, 22 July 2003; “Kazakh Dam Condemns Most of the Shrunken Aral Sea to Oblivion,” Guardian (London), 29 October 2003; Nikolai Mikhalchuk, “The Dying Aral Sea,” The Green Cross Optimist, spring 2004, pp. 37–39; Fred Pearce, “Poisoned Waters,” New Scientist, October 1995, pp. 29–33; Caroline Williams, “Long Time No Sea,” New Scientist, 4 January 2003, pp. 34–37.

50. Larsen, op. cit. note 43; NASA, Earth Observatory, “Aral Sea,” at
id=16277, viewed 25 January 2005; Alex Kirby, “Kazakhs ‘to Save North Aral Sea,’” BBC, 29 October 2003.

51. “Kazakh Dam Condemns Most of the Shrunken Aral Sea to Oblivion,” op. cit. note 49.

52. Lester R. Brown, “Worsening Water Shortages Threaten China’s Food Security,” Eco-Economy Update (Washington, DC: Earth Policy Institute, 4 October 2001); Li Heng, “20 Natural Lakes Disappear Each Year in China,” People’s Daily, 21 October 2002; Xinhua, “Glaciers Receding, Wetlands Shrinking in River Fountainhead Area,” China Daily, 7 January 2004.

53. Prakriiti Gupta, “Last SOS for Dal Lake,” People & the Planet, 8 June 2004; Hilal Bhat, “Silenced Springs,” Down to Earth, vol. 13, no. 18 (5 February 2005).

54. Jim Carlton, “Shrinking Lake in Mexico Threatens Future of Region,” Wall Street Journal, 3 September 2003; population from United Nations, op. cit. note 1.

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