One of my favorite environmental writers is Fred Pearce. I began reading him around 2008 when I found his book With Speed and Violence : Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change. Even though this book is a little out of date today it is still accurate and it is still very much worth reading. There is a link to my review of this book in the links at the end of this page. The Rivers are Running Dry is based on another of his great books.
Pearce has been writing about rivers for a long time. He spent a lot of time looking at what was happening to rivers in the 1990s and then again in 2010. He has published two books on rivers. Both entitled When the Rivers Run Dry, the last one a completely re-edited book published in 2018. This is a pretty wonderful book which is all about how The Rivers and Running Dry faster and faster. Most of this essay was inspired by this book. If you buy this book be sure you get the Fully revised and updated edition. There is a link to this book at the bottom of this page.
Most of the great rivers of the world are now dying. Many of them no longer make it to the sea. As Pearce says , “The Nile in Egypt, the Yellow River in China, the Indus in Pakistan, the Colorado and Rio Grande in the United States are all reported to be trickling into the sand, sometimes hundreds of miles from the sea.”
I live on the Rio Grand and I can guarantee that this is true about this river. Not in Albuquerque where I live but a bit further downstream. And even in Albuquerque, it is pretty much dead in the middle of hot summer. And almost every summer now-a-days it is nothing but a few puddles here and there and a very thin stream trickling down a river-bed that is mostly sand.
And its not just rivers that are running dry. Wells have been drying up too. “More than half a century of pumping water from beneath the Great Plains of the United States has removed underground water that it will take the rains two thousand years to replace.”
And that is just the tip of the iceberg. The world has been running out of water for many years now. And large wealthy countries in the West like the US are partially, probably mainly, responsible. For the last many years the US has not been able to get its hands on enough water to grow all the food and animals it eats or to make all of the huge amounts of commodities it manufactures.
So what the US does is import water from all over the world. It doesn’t import actual water it imports virtual water. When the US imports textiles or clothing or food from foreign countries it is actually importing the virtual water it took to grow or make the stuff it imports. And as Pearce says, this “implicates Western consumers directly in the emptying of many of the world’s great rivers. Water is a local resource, but the huge virtual-water trade has globalized the impact of emptying rivers.”
And the US uses an unbelievable amount of water. Americans use, on the average, 100 gallons of water every day for this and that: drinking, watering lawns, bathing, etc.
But this is not what is really draining the worlds rivers. The real culprit is agriculture, it is mainly the water used to grow food on our farms that is turning the worlds rivers into dust.
It takes between 250 and 650 gallons of water to grow a pound of rice. For just one tiny little a bag of rice. It takes 130 gallons to grow a pound of wheat and 65 gallons for a pound of potatoes.
But even this is a drop in the bucket. The real problem is the water necessary to feed the animals that we turn into meat. Unbelievably, says Pearce, “It takes 3,000 gallons to grow the feed for enough cow to make one hamburger and between 500 and 1,000 gallons for that cow to ﬁll its udders with a quart of milk. Cheese? That takes about 650 gallons for a pound of cheddar.”
The amount of water it takes to grow anything we eat absolutely astronomical. It takes “40 gallons for the bread in a sandwich or a serving of toast, 130 gallons for a two-egg omelet or a mixed salad, 265 gallons for a glass of milk, 400 gallons for an ice cream cone, 530 gallons for a pork chop, 800 gallons for a hamburger, and 1,320 gallons for a small steak.”
Pearce says that he figures that “as a typical meat-eating, beer-swilling, milk-guzzling Westerner, I consume as much as a hundred times my own weight in water every day, or between 360,000 and 480,000 gallons a year.”
And its not just us Americans using up all of the worlds virtual water it is also us Americans using zillions of gallons of our own water to send wheat and corn and nuts and meat all over the world to the other rich countries. It is mostly all of us in the rich world gorging ourselves on meat that is draining the rivers all over the world. The trade in virtual water is one of the biggest in the world. And like so many other problems, we are right now at almost the very end of clean water. This cannot go on much longer.
Right now, says Pearce, “The biggest net exporter of virtual water is the United States. It sends abroad in traded goods around a third of all the water it withdraws from the natural environment. Much of that is in grains, either directly or via meat.”
And it’s not just us doing this, the USSR turned the vast deserts of central asia, like Uzbekistan and Kazakistan into vast cotton plantations. They did this by exporting the Aral sea which today is basically nonexistent, dried up and gone. The USSR used the water of this sea to grow cotton and then sold he cotton internationally. They exported the water of Aral sea all over the world.
The worlds biggest importing region is the EU. Britain imports 38 million acre-feet a year, the equivalent of more than half the flow of the river Nile.” This is virtual water they are importing.
The mideast ran out of water many years ago. It now imports virtual water for most of its needs. That is, it imports food and clothing etc that it needs and which requires water to grow or make. It doesn’t have the water to grow its own food so it imports virtual water.
All over the world, most of this enormous amount of water comes from damming rivers. And this damming of rivers almost always results in huge disasters to the rural people who live along these rivers. These people almost never reap the benefits of of damming rivers. The benefits go mostly to big cities in the form of electricity and piped in water. Or they go to big agribusinesses who grow monoculture crops like sugar cane or corn and all of that of course goes into all the good stuff that the rich nations call commodities that all of us rich folks consume by the billions of tons.
And this is just the beginning of the huge water problems the world is just now beginning to discover that it has. The few things I’ve mentioned here are as they say, a drop in the bucket.
I plan to write much more on this topic in the near future. There is much more I have to say about how the rivers are running dry.
More reading on this subject.
Here are some scenes from natural America that may or may not be with us much longer. Many of our American Rivers still look OK, but they are really not OK. Many that have been dammed are now silting in. Many are polluted. Many are full of invasive species. Many are so full of chemical that what fish are left are inedible. Sixty years ago some of our midwestern rivers were so full of petro chemicals that they regularly caught fire. Those rivers were cleaned up in the 1970s and 80s because of the Clean Water Act passed by Nixon. But now many of them are reverted to their old polluted condition after many of the provisions of the clean water act were abandoned in the last few years.
Post Summary: Many of our US rivers still look OK if you don’t look too closely. Nevertheless the rivers are running dry all over the world and many of them are already gone.