Rivers worldwide in peril
Dams, agricultural runoff, pesticides, sewage, mercury pollution from coal plants, invasive species, overconsumption, irrigation, erosion from deforestation, wetland destruction, overfishing, aquaculture: it's clear that the world's rivers are facing a barrage of unprecedented impacts from humans, but just how bad is the situation? A new global analysis of the world's rivers is not comforting: the comprehensive report, published in Nature, finds that our waterways are in a deep crisis which bridges the gap between developing nations and the wealthy west. According to the study, while societies spend billions treating the symptoms of widespread river degradation, they are still failing to address the causes, imperiling both human populations and freshwater biodiversity.
"Flowing rivers represent the largest single renewable water resource for humans," says Charles J. Vörösmarty of the City University of New York, an expert on global water resources and co-leader of the international team examining the world's rivers. "What we've discovered is that when you map out these many sources of threat, you see a fully global syndrome of river degradation."
The study found that 80 percent of the world's population (nearly 5.5 billion people) lives in an area where their rivers are gravely threatened, putting the issue of water security at front and center. In addition, the study found that freshwater organisms, on which people depend, are also in crisis, echoing a study last year that reported that the world's freshwater species are more threatened than both land and marine. But researchers were especially surprised to find that wealthy nations were no better at safeguarding their rivers than developing nations.
The Colorado River winding through America's Grand Canyon. A new study in river health found that rivers worldwide, regardless of a nation's economic status, are in grave trouble.
"What made our jaws drop is that some of the highest threat levels in the world are in the United States and Europe," says Peter B. McIntyre, co-leader of the study and a professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Limnology. "Americans tend to think water pollution problems are pretty well under control, but we still face enormous challenges."
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