World’s Rivers in Crisis. Some Are Dying; Others Could Die.

Released in Washington, D.C. and The Hague

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Ismail Serageldin, Chairman of the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century and other experts are available for interviews. Please call 703-820-2244 to schedule time.


More than one-half of the world’s major rivers are being seriously depleted and polluted, degrading and poisoning the surrounding ecosystems, thus threatening the health and livelihood of people who depend upon them for irrigation, drinking and industrial water, says the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century. (see attached map)

“Overuse and misuse of land and water resources in river basins in both advanced industrial countries and developing countries constitute the primary cause for their decline,” says Ismail Serageldin, Chairman of the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, and World Bank Vice President for Special Programs. “The land and water crisis in river basins contributed to the total of 25 million environmental refugees last year, which for the first time exceeded the number of war-related refugees. By 2025, the number of environmental refugees could quadruple.”

River basins and their associated wetlands, some of which encompass hundreds of thousands of square miles, not only provide for humans, but also maintain the health of animals and plants, as well as the functioning of all ecosystems surrounding river basins, from forests, to wetlands and grasslands. As a consequence of their mismanagement, for example, North American freshwater species face a five times higher risk of extinction rates than land-based animals.

Many rivers are being depleted because global demand for water is rising sharply. The problem will be further aggravated by having to meet the needs for food, drinking water and water for economic development of the additional 2 billion people on Earth by 2025, says The World Commission on Water for the 21st Century.

The World Commission on Water for the 21st Century will present its report on a vision for the future at the Second World Water Forum, to be held March 17-22, 2000 in The Hague, the Netherlands. The theme will be ‘From Vision to Action’, and restoring the health of the world’s rivers will be a primary goal of the Conference. The Forum will be hosted by the World Water Council and the Dutch Government. A Framework for Action to accompany the Commission’s report will be presented by the Global Water Partnership (GWP), and dozens of studies and innovations will be displayed by governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector.

The Commission finds that some of the most stressed rivers are:

The Yellow River in China’s most important agricultural region ran dry in its lower reaches 226 days out of the year in 1997. Some 400 million people live in China’s North China Plain, which is watered by the Yellow River and two other rivers. The region is a major food producer for the whole of China. Irrigation is crucial, and to compensate for the lack of river water, farmers are drawing up large amounts of water from aquifers, rapidly depleting them.

All three rivers are severely polluted. The industrialization of China has caused much of the problem, which has been magnified by the construction of multiple dams along the rivers.

Health problems are growing in China because of these serious water quality problems. Agriculture is also a growing water-related health problem — vegetables and strawberries are polluted by dirty water, and heavy metals enter grain crops.

The Chinese Government has spent $3 billion over the past four years on a conservation program in the North China Plain, the main focus of which was on improving irrigation technology, mainly introducing drip and sprinkle irrigation systems on farms. These use much less water than the traditional open ditches with running water. The Chinese Government already knows what it must do to improve the river and is working on it: better irrigation technology, agronomics (cropping patterns, greenhouses, distribution of irrigated water) and better management.

The Amu Darya’s and Syr Darya’s flow into the Aral Sea has been reduced by three-quarters, causing a catastrophic regression in sea levels, which dropped 53 feet (16 meters) between 1962 and 1994. The decreased flow in combination with increases in fertilizer runoff and exposure of the seabed, with the salts found there, have contributed to the increase in infant mortality — now the highest of all regions of the former Soviet Union — and disease. There has been a 30-fold increase in the rates of chronic bronchitis, typhoid, arthritis, and cancer, the Commission says. In addition, 20 of the 24 species of fish that used to be present in the sea have disappeared.

The Colorado River in the western United States, irrigating more than 3.7 million acres (1.5 million hectares) of farmland, is so exploited and polluted by agriculture that little is left to protect the ecosystem downstream, which has turned from lush green to salty and desolate marshes. In addition, the intensive use of the river prevents the recharge of groundwater that is already being overdrawn at an unsustainable rate.

More than 90% of the natural flow of the Nile River, the longest waterway in the world, is used by irrigation or is lost through evaporation, primarily from reservoirs. What reaches the Mediterranean is heavily polluted by irrigation drainage, salty and heavy in nitrates, and with industrial and municipal waste.

Just three percent of surface water in the Volga River Basin, which holds 61 million people in Russia, is considered an environmentally safe source of drinking water. Some 42 million tons of toxic waste pile up each year in the Basin, causing immense health problems.

The Ganges River in South Asia, which serves 500 million people, is so depleted during the dry season that one of the most unique and precious ecosystems in the world — the Sunderband wetlands in Bangladesh — is seriously threatened.

The small but historic Jordan River, crucial to the desert economies of the region, can no longer meet the needs of the people and the environment. Just one-third of its natural flow now reaches the Dead Sea, which is disappearing slowly.

Only two of the world’s major rivers can be classified as healthy: the Amazon River — a powerful stream with few settlements or industry on its bank and the Congo River in Sub-Saharan Africa, also because it is a strong river with few industrial centers near its banks.

While water quality has improved in the North, ecosystem restoration still has a long way to go as toxic substances are still circulating in fish and shellfish and contaminating sediments, and excessive use of fertilization still occurs in agriculture. Some countries in Western Europe have large concentrations of livestock, especially pigs, which are polluting surface water and groundwater with unsafe concentrations of nitrates.

The solution can only come from changes in how land is utilized in river basins. Nevertheless, many rivers will never return to their original state, nor will all forms of aquatic life return, the Commission says.

Rivers can be restored

It is possible, however, for governments, businesses, farmers, and consumer groups to work together in establishing proper policies and institutions that can restore rivers sufficiently so that people can use them safely and that most aquatic life can return. Among the major rivers undergoing significant restoration efforts are:

The St. Lawrence River provides a good example of cooperation between two countries — Canada and the United States — can improve the health of an international river basin, including the Great Lakes and wetlands. Problems remain, however, especially continuing pollution from airborne contaminants and accumulation of toxic substances. When beluga whales die, they must be disposed of in secured hazardous waste sites due to the accumulation of toxic substances.

By the 1960s, the Rhine River in Western Europe had become practically a dead river — unfit for drinking water and dangerous for agriculture if used without treatment. Several species of fish had become extinct, and most other fish populations were seriously threatened.

A major chemical spill into the Rhine during the 1980s spurred all countries that share Europe’s major waterway to create a framework under an already existing river commission to improve water quality.

As a result, the Rhine has come back to life, though nowhere near its original state. People can drink treated water from the river now, and it can be safely used for agriculture. In addition, many fish species such as salmon have returned.

The Murray-Darling River Basin covers more than 385,000 sq. mi. (one million sq. km), or one-sixth of Australia. It includes 24 major tributaries. By the 1970s, the two main once pristine rivers had become thick with blue-green algae and high salinity because of decades of extensive agriculture. Removal of natural vegetation had altered the water balance of the land, so that water tables rose dramatically, leading over time to salinization of the soil and threatening domestic water supplies for much of South Australia.

To deal with these problems and others, the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) Initiative was established in 1987. The Initiative provided for a unified way to deal with the river environment, management of irrigated and dryland regions, and other basin-wide issues. The river environment sub-program covers three broad areas — improvements to water quality; river flows with respect to balancing human and environmental needs, and nation conservation. “This has been one of the most successful river basin management operations in the world,” says Mr. Serageldin.

The Lerma River runs through the middle of Mexico, beginning in the mountains near Mexico City at an altitude of some 9,000 feet (nearly 3,000 meters) and descending to 5,200 feet (1,600 meters) where it runs into Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico.

The river runs through the economic heartland of Mexico. Growing industry and agriculture led to the overuse of both water from the river and from aquifers, especially since the mid 1980s. This resulted in significant pressure on surface water sources and alarming declines in the levels of Lake Chapala.

Because of untreated waste from both industry and agriculture, the river became very polluted, which also harmed the lake. This led to growing health problems. A major problem was jurisdictional. Five states share the Lerma River, with each state government controlling only its section of the river.

Beginning early this decade, state authorities started to work with private industry and user groups to create a framework to clean up the Lerma River and Lake Chapala. A written agreement now guarantees water to everybody — for business, for residents and for farmers, cities and factories.

In addition, the federal government passed a law that implements the accord and allows local organizers to control the water supply. The price of water is being raised to cover its true cost. As part of this agreement, polluters pay a surcharge to help clean up the river.

“While modern water engineering has proven remarkably successful at supplying water during the dry season, improving transportation, providing energy and a constant supply of water, and has guaranteed the increase in food production to feed large parts of the world’s population, it has failed in large measure to sustain the ecosystems that provide this water,” says Sandra Postel, Senior Advisor to the Commission.

Rivers, besides bringing drinking water to people, sustain fisheries, dilute waste products, offer convenient shipping channels, create habitats, flood plains and wetlands for a rich diversity of aquatic life, contribute to water purification and natural flood control, the Commission says. River systems also deliver nutrients to the seas and thereby nourish marine life, especially in coastal zones.

Rivers in developing countries are being hit the hardest because of increased demand that causes decreased flow through withdrawals, and the failure to clean waste before discharging it into them. River water quality has improved substantially for some pollutants in industrial countries over the past 15 years, but declined substantially in most developing countries. All countries face stiff challenges in improving the way they manage land in river basins, water use, water quality, and ecosystems.

Increased demand — The world’s population increased from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 6 billion today. People in the post-World War II period began dumping millions of tons of waste annually into the world’s rivers from increased agriculture, rapidly growing cities and burgeoning factories. This is far in excess of what these rivers traditionally have absorbed and has overwhelmed their capacity to clean themselves out through natural processes.

In the past 50 years especially, people began cultivating more marginal land around cities, cutting down forests, damming rivers, and other activities that changed the entire ecosystems in river basins, the Commission says. This has meant more flooding during rainy seasons, and lower flows during dry seasons. It has also meant more sediment buildup, and more erosion in rivers and lakes, and more fertilizers reaching the water environment.

The Commission warns that the accelerating depletion of useable water resources poses a major challenge to achieve world food security. The world’s population now derives 40 percent of its food from irrigated lands.

In 1800, just before the dawn of the modern irrigation age, the total amount of irrigated area totaled nearly 20 million acres (8 million hectares), an area about the size of Austria. From this small starting base, it climbed fivefold during the 19th century.

Much of irrigation’s scientific and technical foundation was built during the latter half of the 19th century, and these advances made possible large new schemes, particularly in Asia. From a total of 100 million acres (40 million hectares) in 1900, the global irrigation base grew to some 250 million acres (100 million hectares) by 1950, a 2.5 fold increase. By 1995, world irrigated area had grown two-and-a-half fold again, to just over 630 million acres (255 million hectares) — an area more than two-and-a-half times the size of Egypt.

Decreased flow — Rivers are in trouble because of the construction and operation of dams, dikes and levees, by excessive river diversions for farming, by the draining of wetlands, and by other human activities. In addition, the decreased flow and increased pollutants result in degradation of downstream wetlands, deltas and coastal ecosystems.

Failure to clean rivers — Often only a small percentage — globally less than 10 percent of total waste, which includes farm run-off, industrial pollution and human waste — is treated before it enters rivers.

“People in the developing world understand that their rivers are getting dirtier, but it is very costly to clean up this waste,” says Guy Le Moigne, Senior Advisor to the World Water Commission.

How to Protect the World’s Rivers

The World Commission on Water for the 21st Century is pointing to integrated land and water resources policy reforms for entire river systems, even as they cut across local government boundaries, as the best method to save these degraded rivers, conserve their invaluable ecosystems, and prevent conflicts in use.

The main problem is lack of coordinated management in watersheds, the Commission says. People don’t recognize this. More development without good management increases the extremes — pulling out trees for agriculture will increase erosion, and so on.

Even countries as advanced as the United States often have states and local governments with conflicting interests over the same river basin, such as the Colorado River, which prevents a unified approach to protecting a river’s ecosystem. In addition, those who decide on water uses for irrigation are often working in isolation from those who design projects for drinking water, industrial water, flood protection and other water projects. This “single sector” approach has not been effective because it typically addresses the needs of one sector, which often means other sectors and ecosystems lose out. Often, none of them are consulting environmentalists on the needs of the ecosystems, which are almost certain to be losers.

The Commission is still working on its report, but its thinking is clearly towards recommending a holistic approach based on environmental, social and economic factors drawing on the Dublin and Rio Agenda 21 approaches adopted by the world community in 1992. This calls for:

  • conserving freshwater ecosystems by incorporating their sustainable use into water allocation decisions;
    effective management of all water components — rivers, lakes, ground water, wetlands;
  • integration of water with land management;
  • integration of water use planning and operations with social and economic development planning;
    management at the lowest appropriate level, sometimes national, sometimes basin, sometimes municipal, sometimes community-based for both the North and the South, each of which faces significant challenges in restoring and sustaining water-related ecosystems;
  • development of a realistic water quality management strategy that would address the resources needed and the sources for financing them as well as the development of new low cost treatment technologies and reuse.
    changing the concept of water as a “free” commodity to one based on its real economic value, using pricing to provide incentives to reduce waste and promote investment, while recognizing the needs of the poor and
  • the environment;
  • expanding these principles to international river basins.

“If people pay at least the full cost of water services provided to them, they will waste less and financing will be available for both water supply and cleanup,” says William Cosgrove, Director of the Vision Unit, which is acting as the Commission’s secretariat.

“We must adopt a comprehensive framework to address political, economic, social and environmental dimensions of resource management issues,” says Mr. Serageldin. “We must address energy, public health, water sanitation and environment quality within a single framework. Land and water degradation issues would no longer be seen as an environmental issue, but rather as very central to the sustainable development agenda of a country.”

Upstream and downstream issues, which often conflict, as well as surface and sub-surface water management issues, must all be addressed involving all actors, the Commission says. This can help to minimize conflicts over water and other resource allocations and use, because of the opportunities it provides for the participation of multiple interested parties, called “stakeholders,” in decision making. Among stakeholders, we count governments (national and local), private sector, professional groups, user associations, the civil society, NGOs and community-based organizations, especially women’s groups.

“The world has to significantly increase water productivity while at the same time restoring the world’s damaged rivers, if we are to have any hope of meeting the water needs of the 8 billion people, while protecting the environment,” says Mr. Serageldin.

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The Commission is co-sponsored by the following international organizations: FAO, Organization of American States (OAS), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), UNESCO, UNICEF, United Nations University (UNU), World Health Organization (WHO), World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and World Bank.

(For further information on the Commission and its partners, please see:


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