Native Village
Youth and Education news
November 1, 2010 Volume 3

80 Percent of Global Water Supplies at Risk
Condensed by Native Village

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 They use outdated concrete and pipes because they can't afford  safer, modern methods.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 efforts are in wealthier countries. They have found only limited success. "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 cases."

But there are some success stories, such as the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Officials are letting the river overflow into adjacent fields. Those fields serve "as big shock absorbers to avoid damage [and flooding] downstream," where cities, instead of farmland, are at risk, Vörösmarty said.

Another success story is New York City's water supply. It's been kept clean at a low cost by protecting the forests and other land in area watersheds  The forests filter water and hold soil in place which stops sediment from running off. This keeps NYC's reservoirs supply much cleaner.

"New York City saved billions of dollars" on water treatment costs, Vörösmarty said. He calls it "free ecosystem service."

McIntyre points to similar projects under way in Bogota, Colombia, and in other South America cities.

Robin Abell from World Wildlife Fund calls restoration efforts "quite promising, [but] river conservation stories are rare, typically local in scale, and often come as a result of large investment."

In the meantime, scientists are struggling to find solutions to protect river diversity.

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