80 Percent of Global
Water Supplies at Risk
A new report says 66% of the world's river habitats, and nearly 80% of humankind's water supplies are in serious trouble. Those who need to worry most: Europe, the Indian subcontinent, eastern China, southern Mexico, and the U.S. east of the Rockies.
But experts say if we work with nature, we might restore rivers and secure future water needs for cities, farms, energy, industry -- and for ecosystems.
"We, as a global society, are taking very poor care of water resources," said Peter McIntyre from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
The world's rivers, wetlands, lakes, and the life that relies on them are under terrible stress due to water, pollution, introduction of exotic species, overfishing.
A study in the journal, Nature, maps out these stresses and more. It is the first such detailed map of threats to human's water security and river biodiversity.
"We see the rivers in many parts of the world moving into crisis," said Charles Vörösmarty, water researcher from City College of New York. "Wherever there are substantial densities of people, wherever there is substantial cropland, and wherever there is intense industrialization—this is precisely where we found the problems," he added.
The roots of many problems lie in where people live. "We settle in really dangerous places, like in coastal deltas or on floodplains," he said. [To protect people living there, we] "require constant care and attention in terms of the engineering, to build higher and higher levees, for example."
Water supplies with the most stress include China's dammed Yangtze River and Pakistan's Indus River, where floods have displaced millions of people.
Along with people comes the need to feed them. People are literally sucking rivers dry to sustain agriculture.
"Many once-perennial streams and wetlands are now dry much of the year because they have been buried or reengineered for human purposes," said Margaret Palmer from the University of Maryland.
Many developing countries now use 100-year-old methods to engineer dams, reservoirs, irrigation canals, levees, tunnels, and pipelines. They use outdated concrete and pipes because they can't afford safer, modern methods.
There are ways of "working with nature to prevent problems from arising," Vörösmarty said. "You could say that a fluid ounce of prevention is worth a gallon of cure."
"Working with nature" to restore rivers' natural flows can ease the pressure on them and improve water quality. This involves allowing rivers room to flood and set their own path, instead of forcing them along certain routes.
McIntyre said most river restoration
in wealthier countries.
They have found only
"It costs a small
fortune if you want to
attempt to restore some
of the natural functions
of rivers and streams,"
he added, "and you can
only manage to restore
them partially in most
"New York City saved
billions of dollars" on
water treatment costs,
Vörösmarty said. He
meantime, scientists are
struggling to find
solutions to protect
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