China, Canada, Brazil, Russia and the United States share a common quality. Each of these countries is among the top producers of hydroelectricity in the world. This renewable source of energy supplies nearly 20 percent of the global electricity needs. While a clean form of energy, it also carries an enormous environmental cost.
Identifying the Threats
A report by the World Wide Fund for Nature identified the most threatened rivers in the world. These waterways face many challenges from agriculture to invasive species to climate change. One common denominator with the world’s top five rivers was dams and infrastructure. The most at-risk rivers include:
- Salween River in southeast Asia
- Danube River in central Europe
- La Plata River in South America
- Rio Grande in western United States
- Ganges River in Asia
Dams and the Environment
Dams represent a destructive and highly invasive form of energy generation. They often require large tracts of land in areas that provide habitat for wildlife. The environmental impacts of disruptions to river flow can occur both upstream and downstream.
Essentially, dams change water flow patterns. This action can have widespread impacts, from altering water temperatures and chemistry to creating barriers to fish spawning. Flooded lands and alterations in water flow can increase soil erosion, which can further impact water quality.
Every one of the top five threatened rivers suffers from the environmental effects of dams and infrastructure projects. Despite the impacts, more dams have been proposed in most of these rivers. It is ironic that a form of energy that provides a means to alleviate global warming should be so destructive to the environment.
Climate Change and Threatened Rivers
Climate change will affect these rivers and others, due in part, to extreme weather conditions. According to NOAA, Texas experienced its driest and warmest summer on record in 2011. Water extraction from the Rio Grande will likely become a greater threat in the future. The environmental effects on the nation’s second largest river will impact economic activity all along its course.
The threats to the waterways of the world represent a danger to life itself. While technology may find ways to develop clean energy, it cannot replace water. Protecting the rivers is imperative to the existence of all life on the planet.