A Firm Grasp of the Obvious

By now it’s becoming undeniable that mankind is not succeeding at mitigating the planetary consequences of our continuous and increasing pollution of Earth’s natural systems. From mountaintop to ocean shore to the upper atmosphere, the deleterious effects are stacking up and interacting in ways we seem incapable of understanding or positively influencing. And no, it doesn’t take a genius to see the changes all around us — just a firm grasp of the obvious.

Of course the dire straits caused by the Colorado River’s desiccation are well-known after a summer in which the largest reservoirs in the nation are approaching dead pool — the condition where there’s no longer enough water to reach the outlets in the dams. For the 40 million people who rely on that water for domestic, agricultural and industrial use, there’s simply no getting around the reality that climate change is leaving them, literally, high and dry.

It would be one thing if we could simply say “well, it’s a dry year in the West” — but that’s a great simplification given lie by the equally dire conditions afflicting major rivers across the globe. The great Yangtze River in China, the third longest river in the world at 3,975 miles, is drying up. The Yangtze provides water to an estimated 400 million Chinese (more than the entire population of the U.S.) but is so low it’s “affecting hydropower, shipping routes, limiting drinking water supplies, and even revealing previously submerged Buddhist statues.” The reason? Higher than normal temperatures and “record-breaking drought.”

Or how about the “beautiful blue Danube” that is now so low WWII Nazi warships are emerging from the receding waters, the famous European river tours are cancelled due to lack of navigable channels as the ancillary effects continue to spread. According to a recent report by the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River, “more than 60% of land in the European Union and United Kingdom — an area nearly the same size as India (!) — is now affected by drought conditions.”

Speaking of India, the glaciers in the Himalaya’s sky-piercing mountains “are shrinking far more rapidly than glaciers in other parts of the world — a rate of loss the researchers describe as ‘exceptional.’” Like the Yangtze, the rivers fed by those disappearing glaciers provide the “water of life” for hundreds of millions of people. Yet, as reported by the American Museum of Natural History “in dry seasons, the Ganges no longer reaches the sea.”

The list goes on and on. The Nile, second longest river on the planet: “The water situation in Egypt is critical, Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Muhammad Abdel Ati told Al Monitor. “We have reached a point where the available water quantities set the limits for economic development. We have become one of the driest countries in the world.”

The Amazon, Earth’s longest river that drains a vast tropical rainforest? Check the BBC’s article: “Drought robs Amazon communities of ‘life-giving’ river.” It’s heartbreaking, particularly for the indigenous people who have relied on the river for thousands of years.

Even in Montana, home to the headwater rivers draining both sides of the Continental Divide, despite a cool, wet spring, our rivers are now too hot and too low bringing fishing restrictions and closures to our world-famous trout waters.

Simply put, when the planet’s major rivers run dry, life as we know it ends. There’s no mystery here, yet our clownish politicians continue to deal with our most critical, life-supporting resources like some kind of a blue vs red game. It is not — as a firm grasp of the obvious makes abundantly clear.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.