Carrying Water in Darfur
Photograph by Ron Haviv/VII/AP
A weary girl carries water for her family in a refugee camp outside Nyala, North Darfur, Sudan, during the summer of 2005. Some 2.7 million people were displaced by the conflict in Darfur, which appeared to be easing toward a close in early 2010. Refugee camps lack basic infrastructure, and residents must spend much of their time on survival tasks like finding clean water.
United Nations officials say each person on Earth requires 5 to 13 gallons (20 to 50 liters) of clean water a day for drinking, cooking, and keeping themselves clean. Refugees must make do with far less, and are often dependent on aid groups or governments to deliver water by truck.
Photograph by Amy Toensing
Australian farmer Don Gargaro floods a freshly planted crop of iceberg lettuce with irrigation waters from the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales.
About 70 percent of the water humans remove from rivers, aquifers, and lakes is used to support agriculture. Irrigation on the arid plains of the Murrumbidgee region is a century old and has turned this part of the country into a breadbasket of rice, corn, wheat, wine grapes, vegetables, and livestock estimated at $1.5 billion (AUS) a year.
Pollution in China
Photograph by Greg Girard
Discharge from a Chinese fertilizer factory winds its way toward the Yellow River. The Chinese government’s 2010 national pollution census revealed that the nation’s grievous water pollution problem was twice as bad as previously estimated because agricultural wastes were not included in earlier estimates.
Industrial pollutants, like chemicals and heavy metals, and untreated human waste also help render much of China’s freshwater unsafe for human consumption.
Refugees in Africa
Photograph by John Stanmeyer
Momina Mohammed and her eight-month-old son Ali eye an uncertain future from a refugee camp in Suola, Ethiopia, near the Eritrean border.
Mother and child are both suffering from severe malnutrition, as are thousands of other Eritreans who fled across the border to escape harsh lives under their own government. A lingering drought had already claimed the lives of many domestic animals, like goats and camels, on which many people depended.
Water Refugees in Sudan
Photograph by Lynsey Addario/VII Network/AP
Women work a water pump at Hamadiya camp in West Darfur, Sudan. Like more than two million other people, they were displaced by war in the region. Even if they are saved from violence, they face health hazards in the temporary camps, including lack of food and water and improper sanitation, which can lead to diseases caused by the use of contaminated water, including cholera and typhoid.
Photograph by Jonathan Waterman/NG Missions
Morelos Dam, on the U.S.-Mexico border, is the final barrier on one of the world’s most diverted rivers—the Colorado. The river supplies some 30 million people in seven western U.S. states and Mexico—including residents of sprawling cities like Los Angeles, Denver, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. It also irrigates four million acres (1.6 million hectares) of crops worth billions of dollars each year.
But paleoclimate studies suggest that the early part of the 20th century, when dams were built and the Colorado's water divvied up, it was one of the wettest periods of the past millennium—and long devastating droughts were frequent at many other times. If the past is any guide, future flows could fall well short of human and agricultural needs along the course of the river.
Manoki Indian in the Amazon
Photograph by Alex Webb
A Manoki Indian, wearing a traditional headdress, paddles down a stream in Brazil’s Amazon Basin. Only about 300 Manoki remain, in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state, where they’ve lived for many centuries on the resources of the riverine ecosystem.
But even remote locales aren’t immune from modern pressures. The Manoki are fighting a losing battle for land and water access as timber, farming, and cattle ventures fell the Amazon riverside forests.
Yellow River in China
Photograph by Greg Girard
Children play along the banks of China’s placid Yellow River, but big changes are taking place just below the surface.
In 1997 the Chinese government announced that nearly one-third of the “Mother River’s” fish species had gone extinct, and fish catches had declined by some 40 percent. Officials blamed pollution, saying 66 percent of the river’s water is undrinkable, and noted that hydropower projects have degraded the ecological environment.
Water-craving development and persistent drought have also combined to reduce the river’s flow, so that during some periods no water at all reaches the Yellow’s delta, 3,400 miles (5,470 kilometers) from its source.
Water Conservation in Australia
Photograph by Amy Toensing
In drought-ravaged southern Australia this Hallett Cove family not only shares showers, but carefully captures the runoff in buckets. In this arid land water is simply too precious to let go down the drain.
Farmer and Irrigation in China
Photograph by Greg Girard
A farmer watches water being pumped from China’s Yellow River. His ancestors began diverting the river's waters for irrigation more than 2,000 years ago, but unwelcome changes have been rapid in recent years.
China’s economic boom has spawned farms, factories, and ever growing cities that are draining the 3,400-mile-long (5,470-kilometer-long) river dry. Pressures are unlikely to ease. China has about as much freshwater as the U.S., but four times as many people. What remains is seriously polluted and 50 percent of the Yellow River is biologically dead—without any aquatic life.
Village Water Pump
Photograph by Lynsey Addario
Punjabi villagers gather around a pump to collect a daily supply of water provided by percolation tanks.
Percolation tanks are essential components of artificial recharge water systems, by which people hope to collect the plentiful rains of monsoon season and make them available for use in drier times of the year. The earthen tanks are used to hold channeled rainwater and aid its return to the groundwater system. Such efforts have improved many lives, but the tanks still sometimes run dry.
Golf Course in the Desert
Photograph by Vincent Laforet
A perfectly tended green provides a sporty oasis for a group of desert golfers. While duffers often work up a thirst, most would be shocked at how much fluid it takes to keep their local links in trim.
An average American course uses 312,000 gallons (1.18 million liters) a day, according to Audubon International estimates. In desert locales, the number may be 1 million gallons (3.79 million liters) a day—as much as an average American family of four uses in four years.
Many courses are using recycled water and experimenting with different grasses in efforts to dry up some of their water demand.
Gathering Water in Iraq
Photograph by Karim Kadim/AP
In a war-torn landscape, the broken water pipes of Baghdad’s Sadr City allow children to fill their containers, but waste much of the area’s meager water resources. For many Sadr City residents, the water situation improved when a new water treatment plant came online in 2009.
But piped-water systems in Baghdad and many other parts of Iraq and the world are expensive to maintain and require power to drive their pumps. Breakdowns in such infrastructures, caused by warfare or simple wear and tear, restrict water supplies and cause contamination.
Women Gathering Water in Iraq
Photograph by Alla al-Marjani/AP
Women wait in sweltering summer heat to pour water from a public hose in Najaf, Iraq. Years of underinvestment and international sanctions left Iraq’s water structure in poor shape even before the U.S.’s 2003 invasion.
By 2009 UNICEF estimated that some 6 million Iraqis lacked access to safe drinking water, 4.5 million of whom live in rural areas. Millions are gathering water from rivers and streams—putting themselves at risk for waterborne diseases.
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.
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.
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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.