Majority of World's Rivers in a State of Crisis, but Solutions Can Be Cheap

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Photo by Wolfgang Staudt via Flickr Creative Commons

What happens when the rivers that 80% of our planet's human population and countless species of animals rely upon, become sick beyond repair? And how, exactly, do we know when a river is suffering? A new report published in the scientific journal Nature is the first to look simultaneously at the range of stress factors impacting rivers' health. Looking at pollution, dam projects, agricultural runoff, invasive species, and the loss of riparian habitat, the study gives a well-rounded analysis of the state of our rivers -- and the diagnosis isn't good. By looking at a series of maps focused on 23 different stress factors facing rivers -- from livestock density to potential acidification, from river fragmentation to aquaculture pressure -- the research team found that 65% of the world's river habitats are in danger of losing biodiversity because of these stress factors, not to mention the problem of human access to sources of clean water and energy. Unfortunately not enough data exists for issues such as mining and pharmaceutical pollution, so the situation is likely even worse than the team has determined.

Even with the fairly wide range habitats worldwide that rivers flow through, globally they all face the same relatively small range of problems. While rivers represent a small percentage of our water supply worldwide (most humans are reliant on groundwater), ailing rivers mean altered migration routes, fewer defenses against flooding and erosion, and other issues that directly impact humans.

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Global threats to River Biodiversity (BD) (top map) and global threats to Human Water Security (HWS); Graphics via Rivers In Crisis

"If you analyse water-security issues from both a human and biodiversity perspective, you find that the threats are shared and pandemic. Even rich countries, which you would expect to be good stewards of water, have some of the most stressed and threatened areas," Charles Vörösmarty, a civil engineer at the City University of New York and one of the lead investigators of the analysis, told Nature.
Healing Sick Rivers Means Intelligent Strategy, Not Expensive Projects

The researchers state that their study demonstrates how identifying and then limiting threats at a local level can be more effective at ensuring future water security and biodiversity than intelligent than large-scale, expensive programs. While rich countries can afford to throw money into alleviating symptoms of sick rivers, the study shows that localized efforts at treating the problems -- such as smarter dam infrastructure, and water management that incorporates both the needs of humans and local wildlife -- is a far better solution for all countries, especially developing countries that lack financial resources.

"It is absolutely essential to have information and tools that can be shared across nations," states Professor Vörösmarty. "Monitoring the world's fresh water would yield huge returns in terms of avoiding costly conflicts, providing food security, preserving unique life forms and a host of other valuable benefits. These benefits would cost pennies on the dollar."

The river systems of the United States are among the most threatened, proving that money does not prevent rivers from being harmed to a dangerous degree. From rising temperatures to sewer pollution to extensive damming, our rivers have become so damaged that even the iconic Rio Grande is on the list of most endangered rivers. Getting a grip on what is really harming rivers and smartening up about solutions, rather than throwing money at clean-up projects, will make all the difference to our endangered water systems.

By instituting international protocols on water system protection, argues the team, we can avoid future fresh water conflicts, food crises, and species loss.

The research comes from The City College (CCNY) of The City University of New York (CUNY), University of Wisconsin and seven other institutions, and the findings along with graphics and an interactive map are found on the team's website, Rivers in Crisis, as well as in Nature.
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