A winter heat wave, reduced rainfall, and a dramatic decrease in snowfall have led the waters of rivers, canals, and lakes to ebb to concerning levels throughout the world. The water situation is now at a dangerous point. This is against a backdrop of fears of water-supply scarcity and amidst experts’ warnings of a possible recurrence of the waves of severe drought that the world has seen over the past year. Images of dry riverbeds and shrunken lakes are generally tied to the burning heat of summer to which climate change has given rise.
According to the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the first six months of 2022 worldwide were the hottest ever. According to the European Union’s Copernicus Earth Monitoring Programme, the seven years leading up to 2021 were the hottest ever. Earth’s temperature is expected to continue to rise in the coming years in the absence of strict measures to minimize the effects of climate change.
Indicators of the Phenomenon
The phenomenon of falling water levels has recently spread in many geographic regions. The most important of these regions include the following:
1. Increasing threats to many European rivers: Reduced rainfall and extended periods of high temperatures have lowered the water levels in many European rivers. The most prominent is the Rhine River, which is one of the most important rivers in Europe. Beginning in Switzerland and passing through France, Germany, and the Netherlands, the Rhine is an artery of river shipping and a lifeline of major European economies. The phenomenon of falling water levels has likewise transformed the canals of Venice into muddy ditches. The last time the Italian city experienced such an ebb was at least 15 years ago. With the current low water level, it has become impossible for boats to move in parts of the city—leading the city’s emergency services to warn that they cannot reach the homes of some residents. This comes amidst fears that Italy will face another wave of drought.
Concerns that Italy will face a wave of drought like the one it experienced nearly 70 years ago have become prominent, especially after the country declared a state of emergency over the summer. Snowfall in the Alps Mountains has been less than half the usual rate. This past July, Italy had declared a state of emergency in the areas around the Po River, which is considered an essential source for approximately a third of the country’s agricultural production.
2. Growing fears in the Eastern Mediterranean: The sight of the waters of the Mediterranean receding by several meters along the coasts of several Arab countries (such as in Lebanon, in Arish in Egypt’s North Sinai governorate, and in Acre) has provoked questions and concerns. These concerns, related to the devastating earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria, were incited by Turkey’s hasty announcement of a post-earthquake tsunami risk. Earthquakes are among the causes of tsunamis; however, for an earthquake to precede a tsunami, the epicenter of the earthquake must be under the sea and the earth’s crust must move in a vertical rather than a horizontal fashion. According to experts, more than 85% of the movement of the earth’s crust during the earthquake in Turkey and Syria was horizontal. This led Turkey to swiftly retract its frightening announcement on the matter of tsunamis.
3. Increasing indications of drought in China: The water levels of the Jialing River (a tributary of the Yangtze River, which has partially dried up) are approaching a record low in Chongqing, the most densely populated municipality in China. This is happening quickly due to drought and a heat wave. Chongqing occupies the rank of six among 10 localities in China that have seen record high temperatures. Observers believe that this will negatively affect agricultural yields and harm the country’s food security.
4. Rising pressure on Middle Eastern countries: Middle Eastern countries are under serious pressure due to the water issue. Some of the region’s countries are among those most at-risk from the effects of climate change and the rising temperatures, scarce rainfall, and spreading drought that it brings. The consequences of climate change could have devastating impacts on infrastructure and the lives of residents. They could bring damage to development sectors. And they could impact the social, economic, health, and environmental condition of these countries.
Syria and Iraq are key examples put forward in this respect. In recent months, serious concerns have arisen due to diminishing water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This is linked to rising rates of drought and desertification, especially in Iraq. Moreover, damaging policies adopted by Iran and Turkey affect the flow of the rivers to Syria and Iraq.
5. Exposure of some Latin American countries to water threats: The receding waters phenomenon has also spread to parts of South America. Experts have recently revealed that high temperatures linked to climate change have exacerbated the effect of drought on Argentine. Crop failures resulting from water shortages have brought devastation to the country, affecting millions of people. Despite the gravity of the situation, the experts did also confirm that climate change did not increase the severity of the drought in South America—it only made the effects of the drought more severe.
There are numerous causes of the receding water phenomenon according to the conditions of each geographic region. These causes vary between natural and human factors. The causes include the following:
1. The influence of natural factors: The receding waters observed in the Eastern Mediterranean are traceable to a regular natural phenomenon: the ebb and flow of the tide, which varies in magnitude in different times and places. This is a result of the influence of the gravity of the sun and moon on the planet, as well as meteorological factors. The speed of the winds plays a role in the strength of the tides. An absence of wind leads to waves, in which case the tide appears more clearly and the waters recede more.
2. Repercussions of the greenhouse effect: Extreme high temperatures caused by the greenhouse effect exacerbate the effects of drought by causing excess water to evaporate from soil and bodies of water. This is reflected, in turn, in enhanced drought conditions. Furthermore, climate change is expected to lead to an increasing range in rainfall and temperature variations, complicating the management of water and its flow.
3. Declining levels of rainfall: The National Research Council of Italy has revealed that rainfall in the north of the country declined by 40% in 2022 and that rain has remained limited since the beginning of 2023. There is increased anxiety that the phenomenon will continue in the coming weeks, especially in light of the country’s reliance on abundant rainwater in the spring.
4. Excessive agricultural use of water: The receding waters phenomenon is not only traceable to natural factors. Human factors intervene and play an essential role in the intensification of this phenomenon. The Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources has revealed that the dramatic reduction in the water level of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Iraq has contributed to Iraq’s loss of approximately 70% of its quota of water, putting the country’s water reserves at risk. The Ministry indicated that the decline is traceable to flawed irrigation practices, as cultivators are not keeping to designated agricultural lands under the plan put in place by the authorities, doubling water losses.
Falling water levels have certainly caused numerous complex environmental and economic issues to appear and to intensify, including:
1. Reduced agricultural production: The agricultural sector is a key economic sector harmed by the phenomenon of receding waters and reduced water levels. Severe drought struck Italy’s agricultural sector when high temperatures led to a reduction in the amount of water and arable land. This, in turn, caused a decline in crop yields and affected livestock. High temperatures likewise reduce water supplies and exacerbate the effects of drought. For example, drought affected yields of soybeans, corn, and wheat in Argentina (which is the world’s largest producer of wheat and soybean oil and the third largest producer of corn). This reduced the country’s projected seasonal harvest.
2. Disrupting economic activities: The 2022 Natural Disasters Report published at the end of January indicated that natural disasters including drought caused direct losses valued at $360 billion. Droughts lower water levels, and it bears noting that many of the largest economies rely on hydroelectric power for manufacturing activities. As an example, Beijing paused the work of companies like Foxconn and Toyota for at least a week due to a rising shortage of hydroelectric power. This was in the context of lowered water levels.
Critically low water levels in the Rhine River (a principal artery relied on by manufacturing throughout Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands) have placed an increased burden on nuclear reactors that have had maintenance deferred for approximately three years. This comes as Europe needs gas—and needs to replace Russian gas and oil by importing from other countries and returning to coal-burning power plants. Hydroelectric power accounts for approximately 11% of Europe’s total electrical production.
3. Disrupting the supply chain: Repeated instances of drought have compelled shipping companies to avoid some of the world’s principal river shipping routes. For example, the movement of shipping traffic has been affected for the length of the Rhine River, which flows from the Alps Mountains in Switzerland to the North Sea. This shipping route is important for many commodities, including grains, chemical products, and coal. When water levels are lowered, shipping vessels must carry reduced loads, leading to an increased cost of shipping and supply-chain delays.
4. Water supply fears: The receding waters phenomenon has raised concerns in many countries regarding the possibility of water-supply shortages. Spain experienced its most severe heat wave ever this past year. Now, there are fears for the water supply, particularly drinking water and water for industrial uses which rely exclusively on rainwater. This pushed the country to approve plans to invest approximately $24 billion in water management and in measures to improve sanitation, for water-treatment, and to modernize irrigation. It bears noting that, since 1980, the average amount of available water has decreased by 12%. A further decline of up to 40% is expected by 2050.
5. An increased problem of internal security for states: It cannot be overlooked that the global water challenge will have negative impacts on internal political stability in many countries. Water shortages lead to different social and economic consequences, of which perhaps the most prominent is that such shortages impede many economic activities. This is to say nothing of the fact that water shortages redirect the movements of people within a given country. This increases internal critiques of the government and the amount of popular discontent—deepening a crisis of internal stability. This could happen in many countries, including China.
6. The possibility of increased conflict between countries: Present water challenges may increase the severity of conflicts between states in order to control water sources. This is not restricted to traditional sources such as rivers, but also non-traditional sources. In particular, the development of technologies to obtain groundwater (which may be located in border regions) and some countries’ moves to use new technologies to produce rain could provoke "cloud wars" between countries.
In conclusion, the phenomenon of falling water levels is expected to continue. This is a result of a continued rise in temperatures influenced by both natural and human factors. It will put increased environmental and economic pressure on different geographic regions in various complicated ways. It is also expected that global infrastructure and national economies will continue to struggle to adapt to the severe consequences of these extreme phenomena.