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Rivers in crisis

What is going on with our rivers? Citing a new study published in the journal Nature, Reuters is reporting that the world’s rivers are in a perilous state.  A series of maps published yesterday, which collate data on documented threats to human water security and freshwater biodiversity in global river systems, showed that large swathes of the world’s land are at risk of water shortages that could impact both biodiversity and human water security.

Co-lead author of the report, Charles Vorosmarty of the City University of New York, told Reuters that “Threats to human water security and biological diversity are pandemic.” The study found that 80% of the world’s population is exposed to high levels of threat to water security. Predictably, things look particularly bad in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia (including huge areas of China and India) but, somewhat surprisingly, water security throughout much of Europe and the United States is also seriously under threat, mainly due to river mismanagement and pollution.

Economists often enthusiastically defend the economic growth imperative by saying, among other things, that wealthy countries tend to have better environmental regulations and less pollution. Lorne Nystrom, the former Minister of the Environment in Alberta was said to have (infamously) quipped to David Suzuki that “without a strong, growing economy, we can’t afford to protect the environment!”

What is interesting to note in this report, however, is the assertion that rising wealth often means worsening threats, for instance from badly sited dams or rising pollution from fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals. Rich nations then tend to cover up mismanagement by installing costly treatment plants. “Given escalating trends in species extinction, human population, climate change, water use and development pressures, freshwater systems will remain under threat well into the future,” the authors wrote.

There has been a lot of focus on climate change of late and deservedly so. But let’s not forget what else is at stake. As the global population continues to swell and climate change causes precipitation patterns to shift, water scarcity will only become more and more prevalent in the years ahead.

The authors said that it might take decades to get politicians sufficiently engaged to fix the problems. “In the meantime, a substantial fraction of the world’s population and countless freshwater species remain imperiled,” they wrote.

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