The world’s saltwater lakes are drying up and scientists have long suspected climate change was to blame. Now, a study reveals another potential culprit: thirsty humans.
One hundred billion gallons of water don’t just go missing overnight. In the past, it took decades for man-made water diversion projects and changes in climate to dramatically reduce the size of some of the world’s largest bodies of water. Today, water around the globe is disappearing faster than ever.
Since 1847, the Great Salt Lake has steadily shrunk, reaching its lowest recorded level in 2016. Today, the lake is 3.6 meters below its 1847 level and just half its original volume.
In the early 1900s, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world. It has been dwindling since the 1960s, when a Soviet program of irrigated agriculture diverted the region’s major two rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, largely to grow lucrative but water-intensive cotton.
Freshwater from the Sea of Galilee, on the border of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, feeds into the Dead Sea via several lakes in the region. As that freshwater travels south through several rivers, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine all pull water to maintain their populations. Already, the salty body’s water level is dropping about 5 feet (1.5 meters) a year, and that fall is accelerating,
Lying at the end of a series of basins watered by the Niger River when it floods, Lake Faguibine has experienced widely fluctuating water levels since the turn of the twentieth century but, at its fullest, has ranked among the largest lakes in West Africa. In 1974, this lake covered roughly 590 square kilometers (230 square miles). Starting in the late 1980s, a drop in precipitation steadily dried the lake. By the late 1990s, the traditional livelihoods of fishing, agriculture, and livestock herding became impractical. Even though normal rainfall resumed after the year 2000, the lake remained nearly dry.
The Lake Chad basin in central Africa is one of the most dusty places on earth, and a “ecological catastrophe” according to the United Nations. Like the Aral Sea, the lake’s main feeder, the Chari River, was diverted to provide irrigation for farmers in different regions. Between 1963 and 2001, the lake shrank by 95 percent to just 580 square miles.
Historically averaging about 700 square miles in surface area, Chapala experienced its first major crisis in 1955. A combination of drought and diversion saw the water level dip by about 7 percent, enough to wreak havoc on hydraulic electricity generation for the town of Guadalajara. Although the lake rebounded throughout the later part of the century, by 2001 more than 25 percent of the lake’s surface area had disappeared. Water levels nearly matched those of the crisis in 1955.