News / Africa

Scientists Ponder 'Epoch' of Damage to Global Water System

Scientists say large dams have altered the natural course of many rivers, affecting ecosystems and aquatic life.
Scientists say large dams have altered the natural course of many rivers, affecting ecosystems and aquatic life.


Joe DeCapua
Scientists say a new geologic epoch has begun whereby humans are causing major damage to global water systems. They warn of a planetary transformation comparable to the retreat of the glaciers more than 11,000 years ago. Scientists are meeting in Bonn, Germany this week (5/21-24) to discuss what can be done about it.

While some still debate the extent to which humans have affected the environment, scientists meeting in Bonn have little doubt. In fact, there’s a name for the informal geologic epoch they say human activity has caused -- the Anthropocene. Scientists are now debating whether it should be officially included in the Geological Time Scale.

“For nearly a decade the Global Water Systems Project has been coordinating and supporting the broad research to study the complex water systems with interactions between natural and human components. And what we found is human activity plays a very central role in inducing and influencing the changes in the global water systems,” said Anik Bhaduri, executive officer of the Global Water Systems Project based in Bonn.

The project takes a global view of human effects on water systems, rather than simply studying very local environments. He called that a “game changer” in environmental research.

“Humans are impacting the global water systems by building dams, through land use changes, and it influences the global water cycle. As a consequence, the global water systems [are] vulnerable to local-scale human-induced traces. And it has wide-scale ramifications at larger, regional and continental and global scales,” he said.

For example, an International Geosphere-Biosphere Program paper says, “On average, humanity has built one large dam every day for the last 130 years.” It adds, “Tens of thousands of large dams now distort natural river flows to which ecosystems and aquatic life adapted” over thousands of years.

The paper also says groundwater and hydrocarbon pumping in low lying coastal areas have caused many river deltas to sink. That leaves coastlines more vulnerable to storms and tsunamis. It also says that humans now move more rock and sediment for various reasons than ice, wind and water combined. The drainage of wetlands for development removes a natural barrier against floods.

Bhaduri said, “The way the global water systems [are] moving we may reach a point where it is kind of irreversible. We may not go back to the equilibrium point. There it comes in the severity of human actions.”

The head of the Global Water Systems Project said that there can be a trade-off as countries try to ensure water security.

“Our global study map shows that human water security has been often achieved in the short run at the expense of the environment. It is true with the developed countries as well as developing countries. We see this kind of a trade-off between human water security and the water needs for ecosystems. And it has long-run social consequences for the socio-ecological systems as a whole. And that’s a global issue of concern.”

Bhaduri added that water security means both water quantity and water quality.

“There are nexus between energy security, water security, food security and environment. And it needs cooperation at the local level – at the policymakers’ levels – between different countries also. Otherwise, we will move at a direction where it will be very costly to come back,” he said.

Project co-chair Charles Vorosmarty said every year a half trillion dollars worth of “concrete, pipes, pumps and chemicals are thrown at our water problems.” He said that has “produced a technological curtain separating clean water…and the highly stressed natural waters that sit in the background.”

The four-day meeting in Bonn is expected to release a final communiqué outlining what steps need to be taken to mitigate the effects of the Anthropocene epoch. In the long term, the Global Water Systems Project is working on Future Earth – an international collaborative environmental research framework.

You May Like

Multimedia Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

Americans Think About Strange Stuff at Thanksgiving

Millions of Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving, but they’re not necessarily thinking about turkey and stuffing

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs