EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 4. Emerging Water Shortages: Lakes Disappearing

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). 41

Reuters reporter Megan Goldin writes that “walking on the Sea of Galilee is a feat a mere mortal can accomplish,” as a result of its receding shores. When I first saw the Jordan River as it enters Israel from Syria, its fragility was obvious. Indeed, in many places it would be called a creek. 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. It then continues southward some 105 kilometers before emptying into the Dead Sea. 42

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). It could disappear entirely by 2050. 43

Of all the shrinking lakes and inland seas, none has gotten as much attention as the Aral Sea. Its ports, once centers of commerce, 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 routes are now stranded in the sand of the old seabed—with no water in sight. 44

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. 45

As cotton planting expanded, so too did the diversion of water from the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea. And as the sea shrank, the salt concentrations climbed until the fish died. The thriving fishery that once yielded 50,000 tons of seafood per year disappeared, as did the jobs on the fishing boats and in the fish processing factories. 46

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 restoring the sea is not good, though some local successes have been recorded. 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, reducing their fertility. 47

At a 1990 Soviet Academy of Sciences conference on the future of the Aral Sea, there was an aerial tour for foreign guests. Flying in what seemed to be 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 life, only total desolation.

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 throughout this region, Hebei has lost 969 of its 1,052 lakes. 48

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 4 million people. Expanding irrigation in the region has reduced water volume in the lake by 80 percent. 49

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

42. 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.

43. 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.

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

45. “Sea to Disappear within 15 Years,” News 24, 22 July 2003; Caroline Williams, “Long Time No Sea,” New Scientist, 4 January 2003, pp. 34–37.

46. Fred Pearce, “Poisoned Waters,” New Scientist, 21 October 1995, pp. 29–33; Williams, op. cit. note 45.

47. Larsen, op. cit. note 41; NASA, Earth Observatory, “Aral Sea,” at earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/NewImages/images.php3?img_id=16277, viewed 25 January 2005; Alex Kirby, “Kazakhs ‘to Save North Aral Sea,’” BBC, 29 October 2003.

48. Li Heng, “20 Natural Lakes Disappear Each Year in China,” People’s Daily, 21 October 2002; “Glaciers Receding, Wetlands Shrinking in River Fountainhead Area,” China Daily, 7 January 2004.

49. Jim Carlton, “ Shrinking Lake in Mexico Threatens Future of Region,” Wall Street Journal, 3 September 2003; U. N. Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects: 2005 Revision, electronic database, at esa.un.org/unup, updated October 2006.


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