6 Major Rivers Facing Drought-like Situations from Overuse

These drying rivers are painting a dark picture of our future.
Kashyap Vyas
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The world is running out of fresh water and some scientists are increasingly asking this question – Are humans going to destroy their rivers in a few decades?

A number of rivers worldwide are being overused up to the extent that they have almost dried up even before they reach the sea. One of the striking examples given by Dr. Gwen Rees, a hydrologist at Britain’s Center for Ecology and Hydrology near Oxford is China’s Yellow River.


So, what leads to such a drought-like situation? Let’s dig a bit deeper to know the cause.

World’s largest and important rivers are at a risk! Why?

The reason for this is simple – human overuse and mismanagement. As stated above, not only Yellow River but other important ones like the Colorado River in the U.S. too, do not show consistency in reaching the ocean.

If we talk about China as a whole, the statistics reveal that out of 50,000 rivers, 28,000 have completely dried up in the last 20 years. The two reasons behind this are – fuelling economic growth and feeding the growing population through agriculture.

The above stat was for China, but what about the rest of the world? Why are the rivers getting dried up?

Listed below are compelling reasons behind this drought-like situation:

Climate change

There is a direct relationship between the global temperature and the rate of evaporation from rivers. As the former increases, so does the latter.

Due to climatic changes, even the rainfall patterns are becoming too unpredictable, ultimately prolonging droughts.


70% of fresh water is used by agriculture activities globally. This means, more agriculture will demand more water usage.

With the ever-increasing population and their demand for agricultural products, this can really be an alarming reason behind the dried up rivers.

Population growth

As per the current annual population growth rate, it is estimated that over 80 million new lives are added each year. The global population is expected to rise to over 9 billion by 2050.

Looking at these figures, it is clear that the graph of water usage will only march upwards.

Energy and its related conflict

The hydropower dams are built on shared rivers and they often divert the water around sections of the river, ultimately leaving them dry. Not only this, but it can even get worse by constantly alternating between unnatural drought and flood-like conditions.

Rivers definitely are at a risk due to these reasons. The sad part is; the scenario is not just limited to a particular country or state, it’s the same throughout the world.

Here are some of the important rivers and their current state to help you understand how dreadful their conditions are due to overuse.

 Global rivers that are getting dried up from overuse

Listed below are some of the world’s most important rivers – from the American West to China and from Australia to India that is getting dried up for industry, agriculture and obviously, drinking water.

1. Colorado River

The Colorado River is considered to be one of the most fully used waterways in the world. It provides water to 30 million people and a number of dams are constructed along its 1,450-mile belt.

As per its natural system, it flowed all the way right from the high plains of the Western U.S. to the Gulf of California in Mexico. Unfortunately, as it is being tapped along the way for different reasons, including agriculture, industry and municipal usage, it hardly reaches the ocean.

The conscious efforts put by the U.S. and Mexico in 2014 has successfully allowed the waters to reach the ocean. But, those efforts lasted for a few short weeks.

In order to restore the flow permanently, the plans are being made, but there are no signs of them getting implemented soon in the near future.

2. Rio Grande River

The Rio Grande flows along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, but sadly, even this is drying up due to the climatic change. Once where this mighty river flowed, all you will find today is dust and sand instead of water.

New York Times has described it as a “feast or famine” river as it has a couple of dry years followed by wet years. As per David S. Gutzler, the climatic scientist at the University of New Mexico, the climate change is making dry years more extreme and the wet years less wet.

So, year-to-year recovery is expected to become more difficult.

3. Indus River

The Indus is the primary source of freshwater for the majority of Pakistan – a fast-growing country of nearly 200 million people. Its water is being overused for various agricultural, industrial and household activities.

In fact, about 90% of agricultural activities rely on Indus water.

Indus River
Source:  Henk Monster/Wikimedia Commons

But, the river is exploited in a way that it actually stopped flowing into the ocean at the Port of Karachi. It used to be a home for different lush and diverse ecosystems that supported a wide array of species, including critically endangered dolphins and other crucial fisheries.

But, its condition is saddening today. As per the water expert and author Steven Solomon, the fertile delta rice paddies and fisheries have dried up due to which the Indus River is dripping to a meager end.

4. Yellow River

Yellow River, China
Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

We have already talked about its situation earlier. But, did you know that this River is the second-longest in China and the sixth-longest in the world? This 3,395 mile-long river was like the cradle of the earliest known Chinese civilization.

But, since 1972, this river too, has frequently run dry before reaching the sea. Like the other rivers, even Yellow River has been extensively used for agriculture.

Talking about the worst case scenario of 1997, the lower Yellow River did not flow for around 226 days. This dramatic decrease in water availability has dried the ecologically rich delta.

Though, in recent years, the Chinese government is making some conscious efforts to restore some of the water’s flow by strictly limiting the farmers’ use along the way.

5. Teesta River

The Teesta River flows through Sikkim, an Indian state before it joins the Brahmaputra River in Bangladesh. Known to be the lifeline of Sikkim, this river has been thoroughly tapped for irrigation and other uses.

Due to this, it has largely dried up. Now, the fishermen are unable to make a living along its bank. Thousands of farmers have lost their water supply.

With so many dams being built up across the river, the geologists have warned that the weight of sediments that pile up, as a result, could also trigger natural calamities like earthquakes.

According to the Indian environmental activist Golam Mostafa of CAMP, the only way to improve the ecological situation in the area is to have a reasonable sharing of Teesta water. This, unfortunately still needs to be achieved despite a few meetings between Indian and Bangladesh governments.

6. Murray River

The Murray is Australia’s longest and arguably the most important river flowing from the Australian Alps across the inland plains to the Indian Ocean near Adelaide. The Murray Valley is Australia’s most productive agricultural zone due to irrigation activities with Murray River water.

It is also the source of 40% of Adelaide’s drinking water.

But, as and when more water is sucked out of the river, the rising salinity threatens agricultural productivity. The diversions and disruptions have reduced the flow significantly, leading to a drought-like situation.

Today, it is facing serious environmental threats, including polluted runoff.


How to deal with this serious situation?

There are various solutions, which, when implemented can work in your favor. Some of them include:

  • Considering installing drip irrigation systems to replace flood or sprinkler systems. This can decrease the water usage in the farms by 55%.
  • Reducing our daily intake of meat and dairy products can have a big impact on both – water usage and water pollution.
  • Encouraging conservation by eliminating flat fee water charges where users pay a fee regardless of how much water they use.
  • Promoting re-usage of water on farms. In Israel, there are many farms that use water to grow algae for biofuels, flowers, fish and food crops before being allowed to evaporate.

Implementing these ideas can definitely help us to avoid excess usage of water, which in turn will help to save our rivers from getting dried up.

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