River Talk

Rivers and World Water Issues

Close readers of global environmental news will have noted the increased attention to the impending water crisis. Every day billions of people lack enough water for basic needs and millions more, many of them women, must devote a large part of their day to securing adequate clean water.

But rivers would seem, almost de facto, to be in places that are well watered, right?Besides, of the water on the globe, that which is found in rivers is a minute amount (Bear with me here:as best I can tell from a recent diagram, river water constitutes 1.6% of the freshwater on the earth's surface and in the atmosphere, which in turn is 0.4% of the freshwater on the globe, which in turn comprises only 2.5% of Earth's total water--the other 97.5% being in the oceans).

So, for all of the rivers swollen by floods, and the enormous volume of water flowing from rivers such as the Amazon into the sea, river water is not "where the action is" in fresh water.

But rivers are "where the people are," which I will return to in another post.For now, I want to bring attention to a recent special report on water by The Economist "For Want of a Drink".The issue as a whole is, as might be expected, well written, closely documented, and highly informative on a broad array of water-related subjects.I want to highlight a few particularly river-related points:

  • Over a fifth of the world's freshwater fish species of a century ago are now endangered or extinct. ("For Want of a Drink" p. 3)
  • In many cases, depending on what the particular purpose of the impoundment is, small dams are more effective than large structures.Nevertheless, for many political and economic reasons, large structures remain on the drawing boards and under construction on some of the large rivers in Asia and Africa.River diversion projects such as the proposed South-North Water-Transfer Project in China add to the ways in which rivers are proposed to be altered in coming decades. (pp. 10 ff.)
  • In several cases, management of large rivers is an international issue:the main stem and tributaries of the Congo, Niger, Nile, Rhine, and Zambezi each flow through 9-11 countries.The Danube flows through 19 (14).
  • There is reason for hope in the formation and maturation of groups such as the Mekong River Commission, the Nile Basin Initiative, and similar groups on the Danube, the Niger, and other large international rivers.All the member countries are not happy in any instance, certainly, but progress in communication at least is being made.For example, the Mekong River Commission's recent meeting included a high-ranking Chinese official even though China is not a member (15).
  • In 2007, analysts attempted to estimate the investment in water infrastructure that would be required both to repair obsolescent systems and meet growing demand in the US and Canada by 2030.The total: $6.5 trillion.

What does this all mean for our work at the River Life Partnership?As we think about the Mississippi as our "home river" or our "laboratory for the river and the watershed," the context of global water scarcity should never be too far from our considerations.Even though we seem at this point to be a well-watered region of the earth, forecasts for climate changes, population development, and future water usage should make us always mindful that river sustainability is our real goal.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.