Rivers are Running Dry Today

By Debra Tan, Sophie Lam 24 October, 2022

Rivers are our lifelines; they support cities, food and economies for centuries. This summer they were tested with severe drought/floods – will they fail?

Indus faced mega flood while Yangtze, Colorado, Rhine & Po suffered droughts, running dry in sections. Power (down 50% in some regions), factories & transportation disrupted
Crops were destroyed but rivers also support chunks of GDP: YREB (US$5.3trn), Colorado (US$1.4trn), Rhine (US$800bn), Indus (US$380bn) = they must not fail
Intensifying & compounding events = rising basin risks. Holistic mountain-to-ocean waternomic-energy-food mgmt needed. We are 70yrs late in adaptation, must catch up

Rivers have been our cradles of civilization. They are lifelines around which we have built cities, farms, and economies. They have also been a mode of transport for centuries. We have tapped them for water, food and power but will we still be able to rely on them in the future?

Already this summer, we have seen key river systems suffer from various types of water risks from droughts to floods. Rising temperatures are also threatening river source regions – the Alps, Rockies and Himalayas are all seeing accelerated glacial/snow melt and/or less snowfall impacting river flows. Monsoon patterns are also disrupted as temperatures rise.

These intensifying and compounding events point to rising chronic risks across river basins around the world and could trigger breakdowns in socio-economic systems that rely on them if the risks are not well managed.

What is also clear now is that we are not prepared for the severity of climate disasters we’re up against – be they record-breaking heatwaves, hurricanes, droughts or floods. With the warming of 1.2°C today, the future is already here now, not tomorrow. So, we must break out of the mindset that systemic river basin risk will only happen somewhere in the distant future.

Indeed, our rivers are already showing signs of stress today – rivers running dry could become a reality sooner than we think. The alarm has already been sounded and we need to wake-up. Here are 5 key rivers that facilitate global food security and our global supply chain – we cannot let them fail… as it is we are decades late in adapting.

1. Yangtze River – severe summer drought has caused global supply chain disruptions

The Yangtze River is China’s longest and largest river and its socio-economic powerhouse. The 9 provinces and 2 municipalities along the river form the Yangtze River Economic Belt (YREB) which houses a whopping 42% of China’s population and 43% of GDP. As you can see from this infographic it is too big to fail and this summer it was tested with severe drought.

The Yangtze River Economic Belt, the longest & largest river houses 42% of China’s pop & 43% of GDP…

The Yangtze River faced the lowest summer rainfall in six decades. According to the People’s Daily, in Chongqing, 24 reservoirs and 51 rivers have dried up due to searing temperatures of >40°C for eight consecutive days. Record heatwaves and low rainfall meant that electricity demand for air-conditioning rose whilst hydropower generation fell due to drought conditions lending complexity to drought management.

…but with drought, hydropower generation plunged by 50%, as many factory operations such as Tesla, Toyota & Foxconn were suspended

With 80% of its electricity derived from hydropower, the Sichuan province was particularly affected. It’s hydropower generation plunged by 50% and a large number of industrial enterprises and factories were told to suspend production for 6 days to ensure that public basic needs of power and water were met. The Guardian reported that Tesla, Toyota, and Foxconn were among companies reported to have temporarily suspended operations at some plants, disrupting the global supply chains.

On top of this, the extreme drought had affected at least 830,000 people along the river as well as close to 1.5 million acres of farmland. For perspective, the YREB grows around 65% of China’s rice.

The drought has no doubt tested China’s water management policies which must remain flexible to cope with the volatility of extreme weather (remember last year, everyone was worried about severe Yangtze floods). The good news is that China has been undertaking various measures to protect the Yangtze from mountains-to-the-oceans. It is also a top priority for China’s senior leaders – read more on “China’s Growing Water Risk Factor” by Scott Moore, Director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania.

2. Colorado River – continuous drought & mismanagement takes its toll

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Colorado River Basin has been in a severe drought for the last 20 years. According to the Pacific Institute, due to persistent high temperatures and decrease in source region snowpack, the river’s flow is expected to drop by 20% in the next 30 years.

Whereas the Colorado River, worth US$1.4trn has been in a drought for the last 20 years

Mismanagement and over-extraction due to out-of-date water right agreements have also accelerated its “drying up”. It has become so bad that last year the federal government declared a water shortage in the basin for the first time ever. Failing would not be an option as it flows through seven U.S. states and north-western Mexico providing water to nearly 40 million people and irrigation to 5.5 million acres of land. The river also supports US$1.4 trillion in annual economic activity as well as 16 million jobs.

“Bathtub rings” around Lake Mead are a reminder that our water poor future is here today…

“Bathtub rings” around Lake Mead are a constant reminder of that our water poor future is here today. As the river’s biggest reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Lake Powell, were reported to be at one-third of their capacity last year. This dwindling flow particularly threatens agricultural production and electricity generation as the  Hoover Dam, which typically produces 2,080 megawatts of hydropower (electricity for 1.3 million annually), saw its generation capacity cut almost in half this June due to low water levels.

The US Bureau of Reclamation recently said the water elevation in Lake Mead is hovering around 1,040 feet above sea level. This isn’t good as there is not much room to manoeuvre – 950 feet, is the lowest point at which Hoover Dam is be able to produce power. In response to the low water levels this August, the government announced a “Tier 2a water shortage” requiring Arizona, Mexico, and Nevada to reduce water consumption from the river by 7% to 21% in 2023.

…but even imposing water restrictions has impacted the operation of companies with direct exposure to the basin

Imposing water withdrawal restrictions can help alleviate the problem but this impacts the operation of companies that rely on the river. According to Ceres, companies with direct exposure to the basin include Conagra Foods, General Mills, J.M. Smucker Co., Kellogg Co., and Kraft Heinz Co. Many others will also be indirectly impacted as commodities sourced from the region including wheat, corn, berries, and fresh vegetables.

Given that water risks are not going away, corporates must step up their water adaptation strategies – see what it takes to survive in “Companies: It’s Survival of the Fittest in A Changing Climate”.

3. Rhine River – low water levels disrupt river transport & EU trade

Moving onto Europe … the Rhine River Basin is one of the most urbanized regions in the world. Rich in cultural history, this 1,230-kilometre-long river provides cheap transport for Europe’s industrial heartland – it flows through Switzerland, Austria, Lichtenstein, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

The Rhine contributes to US$80bn to regions’ economy as 30mn tonnes of goods are shipped each year…

Typically, the Rhine River contributes US$80 billion to the region’s economy, as 300 million tonnes of goods such grains, minerals, coal and oil products are shipped each year. However, consecutive weeks of drought had caused severe supply chain problems as vessels were forced to lighten their load to ensure they could still travel along depleted waterways.

…however, the drought bottlenecked the river, driving freight charges & stranded coal shipments, adding more pressure on Germany’s energy security

At the peak of the drought, Rhine River water levels at Kaub had declined to as low as 30cm in depth. The resulting bottleneck had caused freight charges on the Rhine to have risen to around US$112 from US$20 in June for a liquid tanker barge. Moreover, the low levels of the Rhine River stranded coal shipments to power plants putting additional pressure on Germany’s energy crisis already triggered by the Ukraine war.

Rising temperatures and continued record-breaking heatwaves over the summer will continue to put pressure on rivers and power supply as experts have expressed their worries that this will only intensify dramatically in the future. According to the Guardian, a total halt in the Rhine barge traffic would hit Germany’s – and Europe’s – economy hard and shave off around 0.2 points of economic growth for Germany this year.

Given that this is more likely to happen than not in the future, Germany must prioritise adaptation solutions not just for its water but also energy and economic security. A swift end to the Ukraine war will help but protracted conflicts could divert attention and resources from attending to the Rhine.

4. Po River – drying up means that the sea is now seeping in…

Another river flowing from the Alps under threat is the Po River; the longest river in Italy starting from the Cottian Alps. Once called the “king of rivers”, the Po is now enduring a slow death. The Po’s flow was 6x lower than the seasonal levels in June and tanker trucks were forced in action to supply water to local reservoirs that had desiccated. Some territories hadn’t seen rain in more than a 100 days.

Flowing from the Alps, the Po River caused a state of emergency facing its worst drought in 70 years…

In June, Rome declared a state of emergency in Northern Italy; this was its worst drought in 70 years. The drought not only forced more than a hundred northern towns in Italy to ration its water, but also impacted food security as 40% of the nation’s agricultural production relies on irrigation from the Po River.

Olive oil, risotto rice and passata were in short supply and prices of these goods were expected to skyrocket by as much as 50% or more. Olive oil production fell 20-30% from last year while rice fields have turned bone dry, resulting in local famers to have observed nearly a 60% loss in rice production with a direct annual loss of about US$3.05 billion.

…hundreds of towns had to ration its water & rice production fell by 60% with an annual loss worth US$3.05 bn

Worst yet, low levels of river flow have meant that seawater is now sucked upstream. Some farmlands have become highly saline as drying out aquifers in the river basin are now filled with seawater. This is bad as once seawater has seeped into aquifers, it can only be flushed out with lots of freshwater. Rain is the only hope as the other components of river flow, glacial & snowpack melt are likely not forthcoming as temperatures rise in the Alps and across Europe.

The future does not look good for the Po or Northern Italy. Beware – a once fertile river delta can be turned into a salty wasteland – not just in Italy but around the world. This could happen sooner than you think as saltwater intrusion is accelerated by sea level rise. Sadly, a planned retreat from coastal regions may end up being the only option. Indeed, countries are already doing this… for more on how Australia is doing this, read “Building Too Close to the Water. It’s Ridiculous!”

5. Indus River – compounding basin risks demand a holistic strategy from mountain-to-ocean…

Lastly, we cannot ignore the tragedy of unprecedented flooding in the Indus River Basin this June. Pakistan was a victim of compounding events: intense heat accelerated glacial melt in the northern mountainous regions which increased water flow into the basin. At the same time, 40°C heatwaves since April coincided with a system of intense low air pressure in the Arabian Sea, bringing heavy rainfall to Pakistan’s coastal provinces (see in-depth account in Nature).

Accelerated glacial melt in the north + intense low air pressure in the Arabian Sea brought heavy rainfall to Pakistan…

These resulted in floods that inundated more than a third of the country’s districts – the UN and NDMA estimates around 33 million people were displaced and more than 1,500 were killed. Connectivity around Pakistan was also cut – more than 100 bridges and 300 kilometres of roads were either damaged or destroyed. Moreover, 800,000 farm animals and 2 million acres of crops and orchids were perished. The estimated economic impact was US$30-35 billion – or over 10% of Pakistan’s GDP.

…submerging 1/3 of the nation, destroying farmlands & exacerbating food shortages – US$30-35 bn total economic loss

But the worst is yet to come… Even though Pakistan already faces food shortages, the UN has warned that the flood is expected to exacerbate food insecurity for an additional 5.7 million people this September to November. While China, US, Germany, and Italy have been able to manage their risks, developing Pakistan cannot afford to and the UN has launched a US$160 million appeal for help.

The lack of resources to adapt means that poorer countries will always bear the brunt of impacts. As climate disasters intensify, competing needs will only magnify such climate injustice. Already, we are seeing this today – read more in “Heat Waves Hit the Poor Hardest”.

Though a long road to recovery ahead, now theres an opp to build back stronger by futuproofing towns for climate threats ahead

The road to recovery will be long for Pakistan but every cloud has a silver lining. Perhaps this could be a trigger point for Pakistan to build back stronger – futureproofing villages/towns/cities along the river to climate threats ahead. This is especially important as the Indus River Basin is key to Pakistan – it houses 88% of Pakistan’s population and 92% of its GDP. It is also worth remembering that floods now, do not point to a water abundant future – our research showed that all 5 climate models point to an overall fall in river flow.

It’s key when rebuilding to have a holistic “mountain-to-ocean” view of the basin especially when glacial melt and heatwaves will continue to plague the basin. For an at-a-glance overview of the waternomics and climate challenges faced by Pakistan – check out this infographic.

The future is here; we must act fast

The writing is on the wall. Water is wreaking havoc across our major river systems. As you can see from the above, although the causes and impacts may vary, our river systems all require urgent attention and coordination – and it’s not just water management but also energy supply and food security. Failing to do these can also sink entire economies due to clustered economic activities in these basins.

We are 70 years late in adapting; we must accept our climate future is here today, then plan for holistic mgmt

With a 50:50 chance of breaching 1.5C by 2026, we are 70 years late in adapting. Holistic mountain-to-ocean waternomic-energy-food management is easier said than done – even within one country multiple states/provinces will have to work together. The fact that some of these rivers are transboundary will only add complexity. However, we must start this journey – a good first step is acknowledging that the climate future we were aiming for in 2100 is already here.

Further Reading

More on Latest

  • Companies: It’s Survival of the Fittest in A Changing Climate – Riskier and costlier water and climate-related water risks are drastically reshaping the operating environment, even for leading companies. See what companies need to do to survive with CWR’s McGregor
  • China’s Growing Water Risk Factor – China is especially vulnerable to water-related climate risks but that also means increasing capacity for adaptation for which it has big ambitions. Moore, Director of China Programs & Strategic Initiatives at UoP, expands
  • Building Too Close to the Water. It’s Ridiculous! – Reeling from climate disasters, it’s time for managed retreats & buyouts in Australia. O’Donnell, Honorary Associate Professor at ANU, expands
  • A Climate-Ready Northern Metropolis – Seizing the opportunity, Loh, Chief Development Strategist at HKUST, launched the ‘Sustainable Northern Metropolis’ project. We sit down with Loh to talk about the project’s vision, risks, opportunities for HK to climateproof with Shenzhen & more
  • Heat Waves Hit the Poor Hardest – Heatwaves are among the deadliest disasters and poorer countries will be 2-5x more exposed to them by 2060, which risks $ billions. Sadegh, Abatzoglou & Alizadeh share more key findings from their research
Debra Tan
Author: Debra Tan
Debra heads the CWR team and has steered the CWR brand from idea to a leader in the water risk conversation globally. Reports she has written for and with financial institutions analyzing the impact of water risks on the Power, Mining, Agricultural and Textiles industries have been considered groundbreaking and instrumental in understanding not just China’s but future global water challenges. One of these led the fashion industry to nominate CWR as a finalist for the Global Leadership Awards in Sustainable Apparel; another is helping to build consensus toward water risk valuation. Debra is a prolific speaker on water risk delivering keynotes, participating in panel discussions at water prize seminars, numerous investor & industry conferences as well as G2G and academic forums. Before venturing into “water”, she worked in finance, spending over a decade as a chartered accountant and investment banker specializing in M&A and strategic advisory. Debra left banking to pursue her interest in photography and also ran and organized philanthropic and luxury holidays for a small but global private members travel network She has lived and worked in Beijing, HK, KL, London, New York and Singapore and spends her spare time exploring glaciers in Asia.
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Sophie Lam
Author: Sophie Lam
Sophie has recently graduated from the University of Exeter in the UK with a BA Honours Geography degree. Her final year modules focused on sustainability and environmental issues which she is keen to explore further as commences her journey into the workforce. Through joining CWR, Sophie has had an opportunity to apply her GIS knowledge on a project examining the impact of rising sea levels and extreme weather events on the critical infrastructure in the Asia Pacific region. Sophie hopes her participation in this project will facilitate better resilience planning and the management of risks presented by the challenges of climate change.
Read more from Sophie Lam →