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The BBC's Khalid Javed reports
"Rivers in the developing world are under greatest threat"
 real 28k

Monday, 29 November, 1999, 19:43 GMT
Half of world's rivers at risk
dead The Dead Sea is dying, as the Jordan's flow slows to a trickle

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

The overuse and misuse of fresh water is now so severe that more than half the world's major rivers are in trouble, according to a report sponsored by several United Nations agencies.

Prepared by the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century (WCW), the report says it is not only the rivers themselves that are in jeopardy, but also their surrounding ecosystems and those who live in them.

This in turn means human livelihoods and health are threatened, because water for industry, irrigation and domestic use is either scarce or unuseable. Fauna and flora are similarly at risk.

Rivers are dying

The report says it is the mismanagement of water resources that has left North American freshwater species facing a risk of extinction five times higher than for species that live on land.

The WCW, which is chaired by the World Bank's vice-president for special programs, Ismail Serageldin, says rivers are in crisis in both industrialised and developing countries, and some are dying.

volga The waters of the Volga basin are almost undrinkable
"The land and water crisis in river basins contributed to the total of 25 million environmental refugees last year, which for the first time exceeded the number of war-related refugees.

"By 2025, the number of environmental refugees could quadruple."

The WCW lists some of the rivers under greatest stress. In China, for example, the Yellow river and two others water the north China plain. All three are severely polluted, damaging health and limiting irrigation.

The Yellow river, which feeds China's most important farming region, ran dry in its lower reaches for 226 days in 1997.

The Aral Sea, on the borders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, is fed by two rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. Their flow has been reduced by three-quarters.

Health devastated

Between 1962 and 1994, the level of the Aral Sea fell by 16 metres. The surrounding region now has the highest infant mortality rate of the entire former Soviet Union.

Twenty of the 24 fish species that used to be found in the sea have disappeared, and the WCW says there has been a 30-fold increase in chronic bronchitis, typhoid, arthritis and cancer.

nile Only a tenth of the Nile's flow reaches the sea
Other critically damaged rivers include the Colorado in the western US, and the Nile, 90% of whose natural flow is used by irrigation or lost through evaporation.

Only 3% of surface water in Russia's Volga river basin is considered safe to drink, while the Ganges is so depleted that the Sundarban wetlands and mangrove forests of Bangladesh are seriously threatened.

And the WCW says the Dead Sea is slowly disappearing, because it now receives only one-third of the flow of the river Jordan.

Restoration possible

It says only two major world rivers are healthy, the Amazon and the Congo. Both are strong streams with little industry on their banks.

But the report does say that rivers can be restored: examples include the St Lawrence, where the US and Canada are working together, the Lerma in Mexico, and the Murray-Darling river basin in Australia.

The WCW report will be presented to the Second World Water Forum, to be held in the Netherlands in March 2000. The Global Water Partnership will present an action plan
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See also:
05 Nov 99 |  Africa
Africa's potential water wars
29 Aug 99 |  Sci/Tech
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