Flooded Fields in Oakville, Iowa
Photograph by John Stanmeyer/VII
Flooded fields surround an Oakville, Iowa, farmstead in the wake of heavy rains that saturated the Midwest in the summer of 2008. Rivers topped their banks and broke through levees, flooding farms and cities alike—some 100 blocks of Cedar Rapids were submerged and millions of acres of wheat and corn crops were ruined.
Some climate scientists believe that more extreme rain and flooding events are likely as Earth’s climate changes.
Drought-Stricken Australian Outback
Photograph by Jason Edwards
A forlorn tree stands sentinel in the parched fields of a devastated, drought-stricken farm in the Australian outback.
A decade-long drought in the region dried up waterways, decimated crops, and left livestock with nowhere to feed—prompting many graziers to destock their ranches. The arrival of rains in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Olga finally began to bring relief to New South Wales in February 2010.
Chile’s San Rafael Glacier
Photograph by Maria Stenzel
Huge columns of ice calve off Chile’s San Rafael glacier and crash into the sea.
Thousands of tourists visit the 30,000-year-old glacier each year, to see its impressive sprawl from the slopes of the Andes to the sea. Visitors are treated to a spectacular show, but also sobering evidence of San Rafael’s mortality. The 286-square-mile (741-square-kilometer) glacier is receding by some 328 linear feet (100 meters) each year.
Flooded Street in Bangladesh
Photograph by Pavel Rahman/AP
Commuters struggled to reach their offices by boat as floodwaters filled the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, in August 2002.
But other Asians faced far worse. Torrential monsoon rains in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal killed hundreds and displaced tens of millions from their homes.
Bangladesh is especially susceptible to flooding. The low-lying nation fills with the floodwaters of four major rivers fueled by Himalayan snowmelt and monsoon rains.
Photograph by Bradley E. Clift
This Honduran “desert” was pasture and farmland before Hurricane Mitch arrived in November 1998. Torrential rains unleashed the full fury of a flooded Choluteca River, which washed away entire villages, threw trees like matchsticks, and transported enough sand from the mountains to create an artificial desert.
The deadly storm killed thousands of people and destroyed so much of Honduras’s agricultural and transportation infrastructure that President Carlos Flores Facusse said the disaster had destroyed 50 years of progress in his country.
Photograph by Lisa Hoffner/Wildeyephoto
Digging deep to deliver water to his cattle, a Samburu tribesman toils during Kenya’s crippling drought in August 2009, working a newly dug well in the dry bed of the Ewaso Nyiro River.
Lack of rain in the always arid region reached critical levels last year, killing hundreds of thousands of livestock and costing herdsmen dearly.
Elephants and other iconic animals were also desperate, and dying, from lack of water, and sometimes jostled with humans for space at the new wells.
Photograph courtesy NASA
Seen from the International Space Station, Grey Glacier, part of Chile and Argentina’s massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field, looks immovable even as it spills down from the Andes and splashes into Grey Lake in three distinct lobes.
The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the biggest collection of glacial ice anywhere except Antarctica and Greenland. In 1996 the Grey Glacier alone measured 104 square miles (270 square kilometers) in area and stretched for 17 miles (28 kilometers). But like many glaciers worldwide scientists say it has been shrinking markedly in recent decades.
Bangladesh Girl Swimming Through Flood
Photograph by Pavel Rahman/AP
In search of drinking water, a Bangladeshi girl swims though a flooded Dhaka suburb with empty containers in tow.
The nation’s long history of catastrophic flooding reared its ugly head in the summer of 2003, when more than 2.5 million people were marooned by raging rivers. Low-lying, coastal Bangladesh is geographically vulnerable to flooding. Like other poor nations it’s also economically ill equipped to deal with such disasters in a changing world.
Lake Boga, Australia
Photograph by Amy Toensing
Soon after this image was taken, Australia’s Lake Boga went dry for the first time in a century because of a crippling drought in New South Wales.
When the water disappeared in 2008, fish died by the thousands and swamped the resort community with a strong stench. Tourists were replaced by swarms of midges breeding in the lakebed mud.
The lake’s future now seems brighter, however. It’s slated to be refilled when rains return, and retained as a reservoir in a large local irrigation network.
Photograph by John Stanmeyer / VII
Camels are hardy beasts, but even they have their limits. This unfortunate animal died of starvation in a remote Ethiopian encampment called Mabaalea village, another victim of starvation spurred by drought.
Rains have been scarce in the country’s Afar region and have failed to nourish the pasture land on which both animals and people depend. In 2009 the nonprofit aid organization Oxfam estimated that some 23 million East Africans were critically short of food and water, as a cycle of drought continues.
Lake Powell, Arizona
Photograph by Vincent Laforet
A cliff wall “bathtub ring” shows the shifting water levels of Lake Powell, in Arizona and Utah. This 2007 image evidences a lake surface 94 feet (28.6 meters) below “full pool” conditions, which were last seen in 1985.
Reduced rainfall, and increased water demands by thirsty western U.S. states, have led some to wonder whether the reservoir is sustainable.
China’s Hunan Province Rice Paddy
Photograph by Wang Wei/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images
China’s Hunan Province is a major rice-producing region, but recent hot, dry weather has left villagers with little to do but ponder their parched paddies and struggle to sustain themselves in continuing drought.
In the summer of 2009, Chinese authorities warned that as many as one million people were running short of critical drinking water as drought expanded in the region.
Dry Delta in Colorado River
Photograph by Jonathan Waterman/NG Missions
For eons the Colorado River’s journey from the Rocky Mountains ended in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Now the river routinely peters out well short of the shore, leaving its delta dry.
Shifting precipitation patterns are partly responsible, as are dams and the staggering water requirements of the Americans along its banks. The average U.S. resident directly uses 100 gallons (378.5 liters) of water per day, compared to just 5 gallons (18.9 liters) daily for an average African. It takes some 1,800 gallons (6,800 liters) of water a day to support an average American’s lifestyle.
Pete is a photographer and visual storyteller with an emphasis on freshwater conservation.
Sandra is a leading authority on international freshwater issues and is spearheading our global freshwater efforts.
For more than 15 years, Osvel Hinojosa Huerta has been resurrecting Mexico's Colorado River Delta wetlands.
Water Currents, by Sandra Postel and Others
Arizona's Verde River gets a boost from an innovative partnership.
Farmers in the Verde River Basin employ new technology to benefit a desert environment.
Funny viral video series hopes to get people thinking about the importance of water.
Special Ad Section
NG's new Change the Course campaign launches. When individuals pledge to use less water in their own lives, our partners carry out restoration work in the Colorado River Basin.
The National Geographic Society aims to be an international leader for global conservation and environmental sustainability. Learn more about the Society's green philosophy and initiatives.