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

colorado river photo

Migrated Image / Wolfgang Staudt / Flickr

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 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.

Identifying the Problem

By looking at a series of maps focused on 23 different stress factors facing rivers—including livestock density, potential acidification, river fragmentation, and 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 the impact of concerns 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 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.

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.

river biodiversity threat global map
Global map of the threat to river biodiversity (BD). 
map of human water security threat
Global map shows the threat to human water security (HWS). 

"If you analyze water-security issues from both a human and biodiversity perspective, you find that the threats are shared and pandemic hazard. 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.

Intelligent Strategy, Not Expensive Projects Heal Sick Rivers

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 -- are 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 freshwater 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."

Threatened U.S. River Systems

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 freshwater conflicts, food crises, and species loss.