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Earth’s Major Rivers Are Drying Up Due to Historic Drought and Soaring Temperatures

Published: August 23, 2022
An aerial photo shows the dried-up riverbed of the Jialing river, a tributary of the Yangtze River in China's southwestern city of Chongqing on August 25, 2022. (Image: NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Due to historic drought impacting numerous regions around the globe, the world’s major rivers are drying up in North America, Europe, and China. The dryness has wreaked havoc on supply chains, the ability for hydroelectric plants to generate electricity, and is threatening crop yields and forcing millions to curb their personal use of freshwater.  

The Rhine River, Europe’s second-largest river, is running dry. Water levels on the river, that stretches from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea, traversing through several European countries including the Netherlands, Germany, France and Switzerland, continue to fall amid soaring temperatures and a lack of rainfall. 

The plummeting water levels on the Rhine are forcing cargo vessels to sail with reduced loads so they don’t run aground, driving up the cost for the transport of goods. Millions of tons of iron ore, coal, chemicals, oil products and other goods are shipped via the Rhine each year.

Container transport company Contargo GmbH & Co. KG told Bloomberg on Aug. 22 that “the continuing very low water levels on the Rhine and its tributaries are increasing the demand for additional tonnage and driving prices up to critical levels,” adding that “substantial bottlenecks continue to affect our ser- vices in the rail network and inland navigation.”

In Europe, where an energy crisis driven in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is already in full swing, the low water levels on the Rhine are only exacerbating the problem.

A couple enjoy the banks while the Dutch flag barge Isla is sailing under the waalbrug in the Waal river, the main distributary branch of the river Rhine on August 23, 2022 in Ooyse Schependom, Netherlands. Water levels in the Rhine, Europe’s largest river, have fallen precipitously this summer. (Image: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

Particularly hard hit is Germany that depends on the Rhine as a major shipping route that delivers coal used to feed its coal fired electricity plants.

According to German government data, this week, the Rhine’s water level, at a key German choke point, Kaub, has risen by approximately 30 inches, allowing ships to carry more cargo. However, the water level is expected to dip again in the coming days, indicating the slight reprieve is far from bringing a resolution to the crisis.

Historical data indicates that the 20-year average at this choke point is usually the lowest in early October, suggesting that water levels along the Rhine will drop further come the typical low water level season.  


‘There’s simply not enough water’: Colorado River is running dry

In the United States, the Colorado River, which supplies water for more than 40 million people, is under tremendous stress, prompting the Biden administration on Aug. 16 to announce unprecedented cuts to water usage.

The Colorado River feeds the United State’s largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

The U.S. Interior Department is projecting that water levels in Lake Mead will be below 1,050 feet above sea level by this January, meeting, for the first time, a level that will prompt the department to declare a Tier 2 shortage. 

Arizona’s annual water allotment will be cut by 21 percent next year, and Nevada’s allotment will be slashed by eight percent while Mexico’s will be reduced by seven percent, the Interior Department said.  The department noted that the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act includes $4 billion in funds to address drought.

The announced cuts are not sitting well with practically every stakeholder including the Gila River Indian Community who says that it will no longer voluntarily leave part of its Colorado River allocation in Lake Mead, Arizona Republic reported.  

“The community has been shocked and disappointed to see the complete lack of progress in reaching the kind of cooperative basin-wide plan necessary to save the Colorado River System,” Stephen Roe Lewis, the Gila River Governor, told Arizona Republic.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., says that her newly-created water advisory council will ensure a secure water future. 

“Arizona’s future depends on the strength and resiliency of our water supply. As the West continues experiencing historic drought, Arizona has led the way identifying short and long term solutions while shouldering a disproportionate share of the crisis,” she said according to Arizona Republic. 

Compounding the crisis, it’s believed that by the beginning of 2023, it’s expected that the water level in Lake Powell — the second largest reservoir in the U.S. behind Lake Mead — will be just 32 feet above the threshold required to generate hydropower at the Glen Canyon Dam, which plays a pivotal role in electrifying the regional electric grid. 

The Glen Canyon Dam produces electricity for some 5.8 million homes and businesses primarily in Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado.

Cracked silt on the bank of the Yangtze River is seen on Aug. 19, 2022 in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. According to a news conference by the Ministry of water resources, since July, the continuous high temperature has caused the most severe meteorological drought in the Yangtze River Basin since 1961. Drought occurred in Sichuan, Chongqing, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi and Anhui. (Image: Getty Images)
An angler is seen at the dried-up riverbed of the Jialing river, a tributary of the Yangtze River in China’s southwestern city of Chongqing on August 25, 2022. (Image: NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

China’s Yangtze River in crisis

Historic drought in southwest China, is worsening forest fires, damaging crops and severely impacting the country’s ability to produce electricity in regions highly dependent on hydropower. 

Water levels in the world’s third largest river, the Yangtze River, are at about half of its average, impacting shipping routes, limiting supply of fresh water for the country’s population and are responsible for rolling blackouts.

A total of 66 rivers across 34 counties in the Chinese province of Chongqing have completely run dry as of last week, Reuters reported, citing the state broadcaster CCTV as saying.

In Sichuan Province, which lies directly west of Chongqing and relies on hydropower for more than 80 percent of its energy, thousands of factories have had to contend with electricity shortages in an effort by the Chinese government to “leave power for the people.”

China’s largest freshwater lake, Poyang Lake, has shrunk to 25 percent of its typical size for this time of year. 

The severe drought prompted authorities to issue the first national drought alert in nine years on Aug. 19. Rainfall in the Yangtze River Basin is 45 percent lower than last July, the lowest it’s been since 1961, Bloomberg reported. 

The plunging water levels are as a result of a sustained heatwave that has been baking much of the Chinese mainland since early July. Last week, dozens of cities recorded temperatures over 104 degrees Fahrenheit and on Monday, state meteorologists issued a “red alert” heat warning for the eleventh day in a row. 

The curbing of electricity in Sichuan will have global implications as the region is a major manufacturing hub. Companies such as Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, Intel and Apple all rely on the region for their manufacturing needs. 
The impact on the agricultural sector has also been severe. Thousands of acres of crops have been damaged by the heat in Sichuan and its neighboring province of Hubei, according to the Associated Press (AP).