Death of the world's rivers

Disaster warning from UN as investigation reveals half of the planet's 500 biggest rivers are seriously depleted or polluted

A A A

The world's great rivers are drying up at an alarming rate, with devastating consequences for humanity, animals and the future of the planet.

The Independent on Sunday can today reveal that more than half the world's 500 mightiest rivers have been seriously depleted. Some have been reduced to a trickle in what the United Nations will this week warn is a "disaster in the making".

From the Nile to China's Yellow River, some of the world's great water systems are now under such pressure that they often fail to deposit their water in the ocean or are interrupted in the course to the sea, with grave consequences for the planet.

Adding to the disaster, all of the 20 longer rivers are being disrupted by big dams. One-fifth of all freshwater fish species either face extinction or are already extinct.

The Nile and Pakistan's Indus are greatly reduced by the time they reach the sea. Some, such as the Colorado and China's Yellow River, now rarely reach the ocean at all. Others, such as the Jordan and the Rio Grande on the US-Mexico border, are dry for much of their length.

Even in Britain, a quarter of the country's 160 chalk rivers and steams - such as the Kennet in Wiltshire, the Darent in Kent, and the Wylye in Wiltshire - are running out of water because too much is being abstracted for homes, industry and agriculture.

This week an influential UN report will officially warn the world's governments of an "alarming deterioration" in the planet's rivers, lakes and other freshwater systems. Klaus Toepfer, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, told the IoS yesterday that the state of the world's rivers is "a disaster in the making".

The UN's triennial World Water Development Report, compiled for an international conference in Mexico City which opens on Thursday, warns that "we have hugely changed the natural order of rivers worldwide", mainly through giant dams and global warming. Some 45,000 big dams now block the world's rivers, trapping 15 per cent of all the water that used to flow from the land to the sea. Reservoirs now cover almost 1 per cent of land surface.

The UN report says that demand for them "will continue to increase", but recommends that they should be barred from the world's remaining, undammed "free-flowing" rivers.

The United States has dismantled 465 dams in recent years, mainly for environmental reasons. But last week, in an abrupt U-turn, it signalled that it was about to embark on its biggest dam-building campaign in decades, when the Washington State legislature passed a bill to allow the federal government to build a series of dams on the Columbia, the West's largest river.

Global warming is endangering even the rivers that have largely escaped damming.

The relatively untamed Amazon was hit by its most serious drought on record last autumn. And salmon are dying in Alaska's Yukon River - the world's longest undammed watercourse - because its waters are getting too hot.

On Tuesday an international day of action will see demonstrations across the globe to draw attention to rivers' plight.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea