A World Without Rivers

photo by Brian Richter
photo by Brian Richter

I was looking at a river bed

And the story it told of a river that flowed

Made me sad to think it was dead

(From the song “A Horse with No Name” by America)

Some of my favorite photographic images are those of the Earth filmed from satellites in space. In those breathtakingly beautiful images taken from such great disance, humanity’s footprint on our planet is hardly discernible.

It is also hard to find in those distant views the rivers and lakes that gave rise to great civilizations, and sustain us to this day through their provision of fresh water. This is not surprising, given that all of the world’s rivers and lakes combined make up less than 3% of the planetary land surface.

But sadly, upon closer inspection on the ground, we can see that those beautiful blue ribbons and pools have been shriveling across much of the globe as the human enterprise expands and our appropriation of their waters grows.

Some of the world’s largest rivers – the Colorado and Rio Grande of North America, the Yellow of China, the Brahmaputra and Ganges of Asia – have been drained of their waters, primarily to irrigate farmlands but also to support the growth of cities and industries. These rivers regularly dry completely before reaching the sea. They are joined in their anthropogenic desiccation by thousands of smaller rivers, now gone in whole or in part.

We hardly take notice of the drying of our rivers until they are entirely gone. How many of the residents of Austin, Texas know that the Colorado that flows through the heart of their city is in summer now only a tenth of what it once was?

Tragically, the list of heavily-depleted rivers is growing; fully one-third of all rivers on our planet are —> Read More