Redrawing rivers to reduce water insecurity?

by Priyanka on October 20, 2010

I’ve seen some stunning headlines recently.. “Water map shows billions at risk of ‘water insecurity’”, “China moving heaven and Earth to bring water to Beijing”, “Huge parts of world drying up due to land evapotranspiration”

Most scientists agree that the climate change is already underway — irrespective of who’s to blame and how much we mitigate GHG emissions. So if the climate is already changing.. then we have to prepare for the consequences on our ability to access critical natural resources like water. So what does the human race do in response? It redraws nature… such as… China’s South-North Water Diversion project. China is plagued by extreme weather, which will probably get only worse with climate change. So the country’s government feels a pressing need to redraw their river systems to get water from the flooding southern regions to the dry northern regions — and to quench the growing thirst of mega-city Beijing.

India’s river linking project – a massively ambitious engineering undertaking – proposes to link around 14 Himalayan rivers in North India and 16 peninsular rivers in South India. The goal is similar to China’s — to ensure equal distribution of water across drought and flood-prone areas. Last year, massive droughts literally led to water ‘wars’ in parts of central India where inequity in the nation’s water distribution system exacerbated a situation resulting from altered rainfall patterns induced by climate change. Interestingly, India’s environment minister & climate chief has severe reservations about the river linking “techno-fix“, and calls the project a “an engineering fantasy which did not take into account the human and social factors.”

Humans have been managing and controlling the natural world for generations. So India & China’s river linking/water distribution plans should not be a shock to us. Nature journal recently reported that 80% of the world’s population lives in ‘water insecure’ areas today (see image below).. and that technically includes large parts of the US and Europe. However, the study made an interesting distinction between ‘raw’ threats vs ‘managed’ threats. ‘Managed’ means the areas have infrastructure that distributes and conserves water, and so significantly reduces the ‘raw’ threats of countries that have that kind of infrastructure. So the lesson is – if you ‘manage’, you can adapt to water crises better than if you don’t.

So China’s going to spend $62 billion on its South-North river project, and assuming India’s river linking project actually gets underway, I have no idea how many billions that will demand. I can’t even start to imagine the potential risks in such massive plumbing operations, and more than that, what if a key factor gets missed or its is impact under-estimated before all the “replumbing” gets underway? What then? What is the threshold for uncertainty in making decisions for such an operation, especially if failures could lead to more disastrous situations than water distribution inequality? Of course, there are other options available now — nuclear desalination plants may be? One thing’s for sure — water may be scarce, but techno-fix ideas aren’t.

ps. An article with good stats on rivers – ecosystems, economics etc.. “Engineering a Water Crisis in rivers

An add-on from Nick: Check out the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s new study, “Drought under global warming: a review.”

Climate models project increased aridity in the 21st century over most of Africa, southern Europe and the Middle East, most of the Americas, Australia, and Southeast Asia. Regions like the United States have avoided prolonged droughts during the last 50 years due to natural climate variations, but might see persistent droughts in the next 20–50 years.

Previous post:

Next post: