Photograph by Raymond K. Gehman
Sandra Postel directs the independent Global Water Policy Project and lectures, writes, and consults on international water issues. She is also Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and serves as lead water expert for the Society’s freshwater initiative. Postel is the author of several acclaimed books, including Last Oasis, which appears in eight languages and was the basis for a 1997 PBS documentary, and is co-author, with Brian Richter, of Rivers for Life. Her essay “Troubled Waters” was selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing. From 2000 to 2008, Postel served as visiting senior lecturer at Mount Holyoke College, and later in that term as director of the college’s Center for the Environment. Postel is a 1995 Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and in 2002 was named one of the "Scientific American 50" for her contributions to water policy.
On a Monday afternoon in July 2009, I was sitting at my desk sorting through emails, articles, and reports when I saw a news headline that stopped me in my tracks. It was out of Paris, from Agence France-Presse, and datelined July 10: "Eastern Aral Sea has shrunk by 80 percent since 2006.” The European Space Agency had just released an overlay of satellite photographs showing that between July 1, 2006, and July 6, 2009, the eastern lobe of the Aral Sea in Central Asia—once the world’s fourth largest inland water body—had lost four-fifths of its water within just the previous three years. The news report said that it was now likely that all but a small remnant of the sea would disappear by 2020.
The memories came flooding back. On a fact-finding trip to the Aral Sea Basin in March 1995, I’d gazed out from a lakeside bluff on the outskirts of Muynoq, an old Aral Sea port town, but saw no water—just miles and miles of desiccated earth. The coastline was 25 miles away. Before me was a graveyard of ships, rotting and rusting in the dried-up seabed. Salt dusted the landscape like newly fallen snow. Toxic dust storms emanating from the exposed lake bottom would, on windy days, make the air hazardous to breathe and poison the surrounding land.
The societal landscape around me mirrored the physical one. Sixty thousand fishing jobs had been wiped out, and thousands of people had left the area. Muynoq resembled a ghost town. The people who remained in the “disaster zone” suffered from startlingly high rates of anemia, respiratory ailments, and a variety of cancers. Infant mortality was high. Never before had I grasped so viscerally the connections between the health of an ecosystem and that of the economy, community, and people who depend on that ecosystem.
But the most heart-wrenching memories from that trip were of a meeting in the city of Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakiya, an autonomous region within the newly independent country of Uzbekistan, a former republic of the Soviet Union. The people of Karakalpakiya were among those affected worst by the sea’s tragic shrinking. We met with environmentalists, health specialists, and representatives of local groups working daily to make life better in the disaster zone. They spoke of the sea’s demise as an unthinkable loss of their way of life and their cultural identity. They spoke of illness, death, degradation, and sadness over the disappearance of their beloved Aral Sea. I listened.
Then they asked us, the visiting “experts” from the other side of the world, to offer our ideas and recommendations. A wave of unease arose in my body. I was keenly aware that anything close to a total repair of the Aral Sea’s destruction was impossible. What the regional governments and international agencies were likely to offer paled in comparison with what the region and its people needed. As my turn to speak approached, I felt paralyzed by an unsettling mix of sadness and panic. I looked around the room at the dozens of people who had so passionately expressed their concerns, their needs, and their desperation. What could I possibly say that would make a difference?
What came to me, moments before I was to speak, was the story of California’s Mono Lake, which had some parallels with the Aral Sea story but had a happy ending. I had visited Mono Lake only once, in 1982. At that time, after four decades of Los Angeles’s diversions of its tributaries, the lake was near its lowest recorded level. It had lost half its water, and its salinity levels had doubled. The haunting beauty of the lake, nestled on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, had made a deep impression on me. Its unique ecosystem supported brine shrimp, alkali flies, a variety of wildlife species, and millions of migratory birds. Although it didn’t come close to supporting the fisheries and jobs that the Aral Sea did, it too was a treasure. Over the years I had carried its image and followed its story. Just a year before I traveled to the Aral Sea region, the California State Water Resources Control Board had ordered Los Angeles to halt its diversions from Mono Lake’s tributaries until the lake rose to a surface elevation of 6,392 feet—the level scientists had determined was necessary to restore and maintain the lake’s health. Los Angeles would have to turn to conservation and other methods to meet its water needs. Combined with earlier court decisions on Mono Lake, it was a stunning environmental victory.
And so there in the poor town of Nukus, in the Aral Sea Basin, I told the Mono Lake story with all its David and Goliath–like qualities. I told how a small but extraordinarily dedicated group of people called the Mono Lake Committee had fought for the lake and, seemingly against all odds, had won. When I finished, I wondered if my intended message of hope had come through in the translation. As I saw smiles break out across the room, I realized that it had.
As I headed back home across the Atlantic, I knew deep in my bones that the Aral Sea would not have a happy ending like Mono Lake. The cards were stacked too much against it. The water diverted from the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, the two rivers that feed the Aral, supplied irrigated cotton farms that were the backbone of the region’s economy. Decades before, Soviet central planners had calculated that the rivers’ water was worth more irrigating cotton in the desert than left in their channels to flow into the sea. The sea’s demise had been planned, and neither the loss of the ecosystem itself nor the fate of the people affected had been given much weight.
Over the years, I continued to track the Aral Sea’s shrinkage. River flows into the sea varied from one year to the next but averaged just 10 percent of pre-diversion levels—far too little to compensate for the high evaporation rates in the Central Asian desert.
By 2005, the Aral had lost 80 percent of its water. That year, with
international assistance, engineers constructed a dike between the
Small Aral in the north and the Large Aral in the south, where
the sea had divided in two 16 years before. The idea for the dike,
which was 20 feet high and 8 miles long, was to salvage a remnant
of the sea by preventing the smaller northern part from draining
completely. It seemed like a good idea, even a cause for celebration
to some in the region, as fisheries and wetlands in the little
lake began to bounce back. But the larger lake, the original fabled Aral Sea, would be consigned to death.
So I knew the day would come when the Aral Sea was no more. I just never imagined, until the news out of Paris in mid-July 2009, that it would happen so fast.
It was in 1994, leading up to my trip to the Aral Sea, that I systematically looked at data on river flows from around the world. It was not just the Amu Darya and Syr Darya that were running low before they reached their final destinations, but many others as well—the Indus and Ganges in South Asia, the Nile in northeast Africa, the Jordan in the Middle East, the Colorado in the western United States, the Murray-Darling in Australia, and the Yellow in China. These were major rivers, collectively supplying hundreds of millions of people and millions of acres of irrigated land. I wrote up my findings for a magazine piece titled “Where Have All the Rivers Gone?”
Gradually, the ramifications of what was going on around the world sank in more deeply. During my research travels, I’d crossed the Yellow River by train in 1988, and had been stunned to see how little water was in the channel of what the Chinese called their “mother river”—the nation’s second largest and the cradle of Chinese civilization. It was broad, shallow, and silty, and still had many miles to go before reaching the sea. The Yellow had been running dry in its lower reaches on and off since 1972, and the frequency and length of dryness was increasing as more and more water was diverted for irrigation and populations upstream. A few years later, in 1992, I’d seen the delta of the Nile River, where the small volume of fresh water flowing in no longer delivered enough sediment to replenish the delta, a rich agricultural region, which was sinking and being overtaken by the Mediterranean Sea.
But it was in the spring of 1996, a little over a year after I’d returned from the Aral Sea region, that I was once again brought up short by the human face of ecological degradation. This time it was closer to home, in the delta of the Colorado River, and the story was written in the deeply lined face of an elder member of the Cucapá Indian community in northern Mexico.
A proud, handsome people, the Cucapá have fished and farmed in the delta of the Colorado for perhaps 2,000 years. They harvested a grain they called nipa, a salt-loving plant known to botanists as Distichlis palmeri that tastes much like wild rice. It was a dietary staple. Fish was so abundant the Cucapá sometimes ate it three times a day. Known as people of the river, the Cucapá keyed their life to the Colorado’s seasonal floods. Historical accounts suggest that 400 years ago as many as 5,000 Cucapá were living in the delta.
When I visited their community of El Mayor in May 1996, they were a culture on the brink of extinction. The Cucapá were to the depleted Colorado River what the Karakalpaks were to the shrunken Aral Sea: the voiceless victims of water management driven by dollar signs and power politics. Their way of life hung in the balance because the Colorado’s water had been dammed and siphoned off to fill swimming pools in Los Angeles; to illuminate Las Vegas; and to irrigate crops in the deserts of Arizona, California, and the Mexicali Valley. Fishing and farming no longer sustained them. The annual floods that had naturally irrigated their nipa had disappeared with the construction of dams—Hoover, Davis, Parker, Palo Verde, Imperial, Morelos, and Glen Canyon—on the main stem upstream. The young tribal members were heading to Yuma and other cities to find jobs. Only about 50 Cucapá families remained south of the border.
One morning during my research trip, we took a low-altitude flight over the delta region to get a bird’s-eye view of the landscape. I saw the dry channel of the Colorado trace the river’s meandering path toward the Sea of Cortés, known north of the border as the Gulf of California. No longer was the sea getting sufficient nutrients to sustain its fisheries. No longer was the delta getting replenished by water and sediment. I looked down on mudflats, salt flats, and scattered, murky pools, and I thought to myself: Aldo Leopold must be turning in his grave.
In his classic work A Sand County Almanac, the great naturalist Leopold had written about canoeing through the delta with his brother Carl in 1922. He described the delta as “a milk and honey wilderness” and a land of “a hundred green lagoons.” He saw deer, quail, raccoon, bobcat, and vast fleets of waterfowl. It was hard to believe the area below me could at one time have been the biologically rich and verdant place Leopold wrote about so eloquently.
Ironically, 1922 was also the year the river’s fate was sealed. That year, representatives from the seven U.S. states in the Colorado watershed met at Bishop’s Lodge outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and divvied up the waters of the Colorado River. During the years leading up to this historic gathering, considerably more rain and snow had fallen in the watershed than the longterm historic average. So the treaty signed by the seven states (an agreement with Mexico was signed later, in 1944) promised more water to the parties than the river typically carried. Moreover, no water was set aside for the river itself, or for the delta and Cucapá communities at the river’s tail end. Engineers got busy building the dams and reservoirs needed to carry out the terms of the treaty. The first, Hoover Dam, was completed in 1935. The last, Glen Canyon Dam, was completed in 1963, after which the Colorado ran dry in its lower reaches for two decades.
So after my experience the year before in Nukus, I held my tongue when a Cucapá elder said with conviction: “I hope one day to see the river rise again.” I did not intend to repeat what I had done in Nukus—tell a true story, but one that, given the circumstances, delivered a message of false hope.
Late in the afternoon of July 13, 2009, a few hours after I’d seen the jaw-dropping headline about the Aral Sea, I headed to the Albuquerque airport for a flight to Las Vegas. I was scheduled to meet a British film crew there for a shoot on Lake Mead, the vast reservoir on the Colorado River created by Hoover Dam. I tried to ignore, but couldn’t, the hypocrisy of taking a carbonintensive journey to a shrinking lake to talk about climate impacts on fresh water.
To prepare for the trip, I read up on some projections about the river and the reservoirs under different climate scenarios. The one that most caught my attention was by climate scientists Tim Barnett and David Pierce at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego. They had found that if the climate changes as expected, there is a 50 percent chance that Lake Mead, a water source for tens of millions of people and one million acres of irrigated land in the U.S. Southwest, will be dry by 2021. They estimated that the Colorado River system is losing, on balance, about one million acre-feet of water a year—enough to meet the demands of eight million people. Without more precipitation or a curtailment in water use, that net deficit will build year after year, and the volume of water in Lake Mead will keep shrinking until it is dry. The year 2021 had a distant ring to it, so I solidified in my mind that this unthinkable situation could occur in just a little over a decade.
Lake Mead is not only the granddaddy of reservoirs on the Colorado, it is the largest man-made reservoir in the United States. When full, it holds about as much water as the Colorado River carries over a two-year period. With such a storage capacity, it ensures a steady supply of water for parts of Arizona, Nevada, California, and northern Mexico. Without that storage, the reliability of those supplies would diminish greatly.
The gamble in letting the water deficit build—and the lake level drop—is that the rains and snows will return sufficiently to replenish the Colorado River system. But the climate models suggest that this is less and less likely. If Lake Mead becomes dry within a decade or two, can the Southwest remain habitable in the way we now know it?
As I pondered this question, my view out the right side of the airplane as we headed into Las Vegas was of the water body itself—Lake Mead, there in all its glory, with a thick, white bathtub ring around its perimeter. The lake’s level had dropped 100 feet since the year 2000. If it falls much farther, the Las Vegas valley’s primary water intake will become inoperable. Because the lake is wider at the surface than at greater depths, like a coneshaped coffee filter, the lake’s drop in level represents a much bigger loss of water than it appears to. Although the lake’s level was now only 10 percent below the 1983 high-water mark (which occurred after a strong El Niño weather event had delivered unusual amounts of precipitation to the watershed), the volume of water in the lake had dropped from 96 percent of capacity to 43 percent in just the last nine years.
As the plane lowered its landing gear, I strained my neck to watch the edge of Lake Mead recede. A few seconds later, a lush, green golf course came into view. With late afternoon temperatures pushing 107 degrees, there was scarcely a golfer in sight. Downtown, on the Strip, the dice-rolling gamblers had no idea how high the stakes were becoming.
Reasonable people can disagree about the details, but it’s clear that the natural world around us is changing much faster than anyone, including scientists, would have imagined possible even five years ago. Glaciers and ice caps are melting, seas are rising, rivers and lakes are drying up, and floods and droughts in rich and poor countries alike are wreaking havoc with agriculture. So in the midst of these trends, one can be forgiven for wondering, is there hope for a water-secure world? Not just any hope, but honest hope. Is it really possible to join the Cucapá elder in hoping for a future in which the depleted Colorado—and all the rivers like it—will rise again to sustain the communities, both natural and human, that depend on them?
At this moment, we as a society are like the frog that chooses to stay in a warming pot of water as the heat is gradually turned up—unable to grasp the dire consequences of incremental change. Inch by inch, the water tables drop. Mile by mile, the rivers run dry. The trends are not good. Yet we stay the course, refusing to recognize that, for safety’s sake—for survival itself—a big change is necessary. We pretend not to know. Denial, as has been said, is not just a river in Egypt. It flows in every one of us.
But there comes a point where denial stops offering its false comfort, and we must look reality squarely in the eye. And if this moment arrives in time, before irreversible thresholds are crossed, we get to the root of honest hope. It lies, I think, in this idea: As the unthinkable begins to happen, actions we thought impossible become possible.
In fact, when I flip my water lens from the panoramic view and zoom in to take a close-up, more localized look, I see something extraordinary: Little shoots of honest hope are sprouting all around. Community farms and backyard and rooftop gardens are popping up, reducing both the energy and water demands of our diets. Farmers are shifting from flood irrigation to highly efficient drip systems, which deliver water directly to the roots of plants. Some are doubling or tripling the amount of crop per drop they get from their limited water supplies. Cities such as Boston, San Antonio, Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York are driving down urban water demand by promoting conservation in homes and businesses.
More and more communities are taking the “waste” out of wastewater by finding ways to recycle and reuse it. Some forwardthinking corporations are promoting more sustainable water use throughout their supply chains—from farm to factory—to shrink the water footprint of their products. Growing numbers of obsolete or harmful dams are being dismantled and removed—including some 430 in the United States alone over the last decade—allowing fish to return to native spawning grounds and rivers to flow more naturally again.
Even some national governments have taken bold steps forward. South Africa has established a Water Reserve, declaring that the highest priority for water use in the country is to meet the basic water needs of all people and ecosystems in order to sustain human and ecosystem health. In Costa Rica, the government compensates landowners in forested watersheds for conserving rather than cutting down their forests in order to safeguard the array of societal benefits—from clean, reliable water supplies to species diversity and carbon sequestration—that healthy watersheds provide. And in North America, the eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces that surround the Great Lakes have agreed to ban diversions of water out of the Great Lakes Basin, essentially saying that there is no surplus water there; it is all needed to ensure the future health of the Great Lakes.
When I take such examples and replicate them many times, I can arrive at a vision of a world in harmony with the planet’s life-giving water cycle. It’s a world in which we’d see more rivers actually flowing like rivers again, one in which farmers would use half as much water to provide nutritious diets to the world, and one in which computers and clothes would be made in factories that treated and reused all of their process water. It’s one in which ecological engineers would help communities rely on nature’s solar-powered infrastructure—wetlands, floodplains, and forested watersheds—to purify water, help control floods, and recharge groundwater, all while preserving habitats for fish and wildlife and beautiful places for people to enjoy. It’s one in which the water productivity of national economies—the volume of water used to produce a dollar of gross national product—would be up to ten times higher than it is today. Overall, it is one in which water management would be less about pipes, pumps, and pouring concrete, and more about ideas, innovation, and ecological intelligence.
This is a world most of us would want to live in, whereas the world we will create if current trends go unaltered is not. The leap we need to make to get to this better place—to exit the pot of water before it’s too late—must be big and bold. It will require that we shake up the old rules of the water game, crafted when water seemed abundant, maybe even inexhaustible, and replace them with new ones more aligned with the world of today. Pricing, markets, regulations, rights, incentives, legal constructs—all of these tools will need an overhaul for the leap to be big enough to get us out of the danger zone.
But while necessary, these changes alone will not be sufficient. Some fundamental element is missing. And it has to do with what I saw on February 13, 2004, as I strolled around—of all places—the Charlotte, North Carolina, airport.
My connecting flight to San Diego was delayed by several hours. I grabbed some lunch, wandered through a bookstore, and went over my notes for the next morning’s talk. I was scheduled to speak about global water issues to a conference of investors gathered in Carlsbad, just north of San Diego. Water was only a small part of the conference agenda, but I anticipated some questions about investment opportunities in desalination—the process of creating fresh water by desalting seawater. A desalination plant was slated to be built, right there in Carlsbad, but more than that, desalination has that silver-bullet quality that investors often find attractive. After all, wouldn’t the ability to remove salt from seawater on a very large scale just about solve the world’s water shortages?
Yes, but—I needed to sharpen my response. For sure, it’s a lifeline for energy-rich Persian Gulf countries that can afford to turn oil into water, but most of the world can’t afford to do that. Desalination produces not only drinking water, but also a toxic briny waste product. More to the point, why use climate-altering fossil fuels to produce water when conservation and efficiency investments can meet new water demands at less cost and without the environmental downsides? And isn’t it counterproductive to droughtproof drinking water supplies with a technology that spews more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and thereby increases the risk of drought?
Anyway, I was working all of this out in my head as I wandered through the Charlotte airport. With a couple more hours to kill, I decided to step outside for some fresh air. I walked around a parking lot, enjoyed the Friday afternoon sun, and then headed back toward the terminal. And that’s when I saw what I’d never seen so clearly before. It was personified, right there, in a little girl, barely two years old, who, upon rounding a corner and seeing a beautiful fountain of water, ran shrieking in sheer delight to be near it, to touch it, to feel it, to bond with it. The pull appeared as strong as an electron toward a proton.
We are connected. All the water here on Earth now is all the water there ever was, and ever will be. Through the cycling of water, across space and time, we are linked to all of life. My morning coffee might contain water that the dinosaurs drank. Earth’s water, embedded with the wisdom of the ages, is literally in our blood. And as molecules of water circulate from sea to air to land—through the clouds, through the rivers, through the trees, through the frogs and fish and mussels and beetles and ants and birds and bees and everything alive, now and then and yet to be—we are connected. And this is what I think the Cucapá elder knew but what I had only begun to grasp: that we cannot sever one part of the Earth from another without damaging the whole.
Deep in our bones, we know this. We have just pushed that knowing out of the way.
But as the unthinkable keeps happening—as water disappears from rivers and lakes and the aquifers beneath our feet—I believe we will begin to awaken to our kinship with water, which springs from knowing at a cellular level that water’s gift is life. No water, no life. Our innate love of life will rise up and call upon us, individually and in our communities and beyond, to do something with water we have so far found impossible to do: We will share it. We will share it because water’s gift is life, and we are connected to all life. We will start to live by a new ethic that says all living things must get enough water to survive before some of us get more than enough.
That’s a big leap from the me-first thinking that determines most of our decisions about water today. But we need to make it—now.
Help Save the Colorado River
You can help restore freshwater ecosystems by pledging to cut your water footprint. For every pledge, Change the Course will restore 1,000 gallons back to the Colorado River.
Sandra is a leading authority on international freshwater issues and is spearheading our global freshwater efforts.
He's paddled the Colorado River from its headwaters to the delta, in an effort to bring awareness to this mighty river at risk.
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