EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth

Chapter 2. Signs of Stress: Climate & Water: Rivers Drained Dry

We live in a water-challenged world, one that is becoming more so each year as 80 million additional people stake their claims to the earth's water resources. Even now, many people in developing countries lack enough water to satisfy basic needs for drinking, bathing, and producing food.

By 2050, India is projected to add 563 million people and China 187 million. Pakistan, one of the world's most arid countries, is projected to add over 200 million, going from 141 million today to 344 million. Egypt, Iran, and Mexico are slated to increase their populations by half or more by 2050. In these and other water-short countries, continuing population growth is sentencing hundreds of millions of people to hydrological povertya local form of impoverishment that is difficult to escape.38

One manifestation of emerging water scarcity is dry rivers. Several of the world's major rivers now either run dry part of the year, failing to reach the sea, or have little water left when they get there.39

As noted earlier, the Amu Darya in Central Asia, one of two rivers that feeds the Aral Sea, is now largely drained dry by Turkmen and Uzbek cotton farmers. With this river failing to reach the sea at times and the flow of the Syr Darya reduced to a shadow of its past flow, the Aral Sea is shrinking beneath the relentless sun in this semiarid region. Since 1960, the sea has dropped 12 meters (40 feet); its area has shrunk by 40 percent and its volume by 66 percent. Towns that were once coastal are now 50 kilometers from the water. If recent trends continue, the sea will largely disappear within another decade or twoexisting only on old maps, a geographic memory.40

As the sea has shrunk, the salt concentrations in its water have increased to where fish can no longer survive. As a result, the fisherywhich yielded 60,000 tons (130 million pounds) of fish per year as recently as 1960is now dead.41

In 1990, the Soviet Academy of Sciences organized a conference in Nukus, a town near the Aral Sea, entitled "The Aral Sea: An Environmental Catastrophe." After attending the meeting, I joined other guests on an air tour over the sea and the former seabed. I later wrote in World Watch magazine, "From the air, the exposed floor of the Aral Sea looks like a moonscape. No plant or animal life is visible. From a few hundred feet above the ground, in an ancient canvas-winged, single-engine bi-plane, the signs of a dying ecosystem are evident. Fishing villages that once stood by the shoreline are abandoned and lie miles from the receding waters. Like ghost mining towns out of the American West, they reinforce the image of a dying ecosystem and a dying economy."42

When rivers go dry, the marine ecosystems within the rivers are destroyed. The estuaries as sometimes affected as well. For example, when the Colorado River was flowing into the Gulf of California, it supported a large fishery and several hundred Cocopa Indian families. Today this fishery is but a remnant of its former self.43

Upstream diversions for cities, industry, and irrigation from China's Yellow River are multiplying. After flowing uninterruptedly for thousands of years, this cradle of Chinese civilization ran dry in 1972, failing to reach the sea for some 15 days. In the following years, it ran dry intermittently until 1985. Since then, it has run dry for part of each year. In 1997, a drought year, the Yellow River did not connect with the sea for 226 days.44

In fact, during much of 1997, the river did not even make it to Shandong Province, the last of the eight provinces it flows through en route to the sea. Shandong, producing a fifth of China's corn and a seventh of its wheat, is more important agriculturally to China than Iowa and Kansas together are to the United States. Half of the province's irrigation water used to come from the Yellow River, but this supply is now shrinking. The other half comes from an aquifer whose water level is falling by 1.5 meters a year.45

As more and more water is diverted to industries and cities upstream, less is available downstream. Beijing is permitting the poverty-ridden upstream provinces to divert water for their development at the expense of agriculture in the lower reaches of the basin.

One of the hundreds of projects to divert water from the Yellow River in the upper reaches is a canal that will take water to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, starting in 2003. This will help satisfy swelling residential needs as well as those of expanding industries, including the all-important wool textile industry that is supplied by the region's vast flocks of sheep. Another canal will divert water to Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province, a city of 4 million that now rations water.46

The growing upstream claims on the Yellow River mean that one day it may no longer reach Shandong Province at all, cutting the province off from roughly half of its irrigation water. The resulting prospect of massive grain imports and growing dependence on U.S. grain, in particular, leads to sleepless nights for political leaders in Beijing.47

Another river that is leading to sleepless nights is the Nile, because its waters must be allocated not among provinces, as in China, but among countries. Ten countries share the Nile River basin, but just threeEgypt, Sudan, and Ethiopiadominate. Eighty-five percent of the Nile's flow originates in Ethiopia, but the lion's share is used by Egypt. Most of the rest is used in Sudan. Once the claims of these two countries are satisfied, little water is left when it enters the Mediterranean.48

Egypt, where it almost never rains, is wholly dependent on the Nile. Without this lifeline, Egypt would not exist. Even if all the water in the Nile River were available to Egypt, it would still have to import some grain just to feed its current population. But it is already importing 40 percent of its grain, and its population, now 68 million, is projected to nearly double to 114 million by 2050. The population of Sudan, which is growing even faster, is projected to increase from 31 million today to 64 million by 2050, more than doubling its water needs.49

Ethiopia, where most of the precipitation falls that feeds the Nile, is growing faster still. With each family averaging nearly six children, its population is projected to triple from 63 million at the end of 2000 to 186 million by 2050. Thus far, Ethiopia has built only 200 very small dams that enable it to use 500 million cubic meters of the Nile's 84-billion-cubic-meter flow, or less than 1 percent. But the Ethiopian government is planning to use much more of the water to expand food production and provide electricity as it tries to lift its people out of poverty.50

The Nile, like the Yellow River, has wide disparities in income between the upper and lower reaches of the basin. It is difficult to argue that Ethiopia, with an annual income of scarcely $100 per person, should not use the upper Nile waters for its own development, even though it would be at the expense of Egypt, which has an annual income of over $1,000 per person. If the basin countries do not quickly stabilize their populations, they risk becoming trapped in hydrological poverty.51

Other river basins where competition for water is intensifying include the Jordan, the Ganges, and the Mekong. The competition over the river Jordan between Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians is well known. The Jordan, which flows from Lebanon into Israel, where it joins the Sea of Galilee and eventually empties into the Dead Sea, is being overtaxed. As a result, the water level in the Sea of Galilee is gradually falling and the Dead Sea is shrinking.52

If India, which shares the Ganges with Bangladesh, were to use all the water that it wants, the Ganges might not even reach Bangladesh during the dry season. But fortunately a treaty has been signed that allocates an agreed-upon amount of water to Bangladesh. Competition in the Mekong River basin is also intensifying. As China builds dams on its upper reaches, less water is left for Cambodia, Laos, and Viet Namcountries whose rice cultures depend on the Mekong water.53

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38. Robert Engelman et al., People in the Balance: Population and Natural Resources at the Turn of the Millennium (Washington, D.C.: Population Action International, 2000), pp. 8-9.

39. Postel, op. cit. note 15, p. 71.

40. Lester R. Brown, "The Aral Sea: Going, Going.," World Watch, January/February 1991, pp. 20-27.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid., p. 20.

43. Postel, op. cit. note 15, pp. 261-62.

44. Lester R. Brown and Brian Halweil, "China's Water Shortages Could Shake World Food Security," World Watch, July/August 1998, pp. 11-12.

45. Ibid.

46. Ibid., p. 15.

47. Ibid.

48. Postel, op. cit. note 15, pp. 141-49.

49. Egypt imported 10.5 million tons of the total 26.7 tons of grain consumed in 2000, according to USDA, op. cit. note 12; populations from United Nations, op. cit. note 4.

50. Fertility rate from Population Reference Bureau, 2001 World Population Data Sheet, wall chart (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 2001); population projections from United Nations, op. cit. note 4; dams from Tom Gardner-Outlaw and Robert Engelman, Sustaining Water, Easing Scarcity (Washington, DC: Population Action International, 1997), p. 12.

51. World Bank, World Development Indicators Database, April 2001.

52. Harvey Morris and Gareth Smyth, "Israel Talks of 'Water War' with Lebanon," Financial Times, 16 March 2001; Friends of the Earth-Middle East, Let the Dead Sea Live (Amman, Jordan: 2000), p. 11.

53. Postel, op. cit. note 15, pp. 155-57; Milton Osborne, "The Strategic Significance of the Mekong," Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2000, pp. 429-44.


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute