The Impact of Climate Change on Rivers

Rivers provide life and sustenance to humans, plants and animals and they were our very first highways before roads were made. There are 165 major rivers on planet earth, mostly flowing south with the exception of four of the longest rivers that flow north.

Our rivers are the first areas to be heavily impacted by climate change. Rising temperatures, frequent extreme storms and changes in season precipitation rates are finally taking their toll. We have to remember that climate change equals water change.

River communities are seeing increased flooding, droughts and waterborne diseases which are all having extreme impacts on their daily lives. Our drinking water comes directly or indirectly from streams and rivers. It, therefore, makes sense that when our rivers and streams become polluted, so does our drinking water.
Read our blog on Dangerous Pathogens found in Rivers

To put it mildly, the future does not look good unless we take drastic action.

Rising temperatures in rivers affect aquatic life

Aquatic species all have a preferred temperature range in which they live, and when this range is affected, this can cause the death of species that cannot live in warmer waters. Moreover, a rise in water temperature also affects water chemistry.

Groundwater, for example, can have a higher electrical conductivity as the higher water temperature dissolves more minerals from the surrounding rocks. Warm water holds less dissolved oxygen than cold water, which means there is ultimately less oxygen for aquatic life. Certain water compounds also become more toxic once temperatures rise.

Let’s take trout or salmon, for example. These fish are cold-water species and therefore require cold water for their very survival. If our river temperatures keep rising, these fish will be replaced by species able to live in warmer waters and trout and salmon meals will become a thing of the past.

Why Algal blooms can be deadly

If our river temperatures keep rising we risk excessive algal blooms which are very harmful to aquatic life, humans and our global economy. In order to maintain water quality, we have to reduce excess nutrient pollution. So when rising water temperatures and excess nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen enter the rivers and lakes, we see algal blooms. When this happens it reduces the amount of oxygen available to aquatic life, causing dead zones where no life can flourish.

Not only do algal blooms affect aquatic life, but the water quality also becomes severely affected resulting in unsafe drinking water that requires costly additional water treatment. It becomes a vicious loop.

Read our blog on Reducing harmful algal blooms

Drinking water will become costly

With more frequent storms come heavier rainfall, which in turn causes pollutant runoff and sedimentation in our rivers and lakes. This complicates treatment in source waters and pushes up the costs of treating drinking water. Ultimately it is the consumer who bears this cost, which means that drinking water will become very expensive.

We can expect more droughts as climate change increases. Less rainfall means less drinking water.

Rising sea levels are also inviting more saltwater intrusion into our lakes and rivers, affecting the availability and quality of source water.

What is the solution?

Protecting and restoring rivers must be part of the global solution along with decreasing global warming pollution. There are many wonderful river restoration projects across the globe that focus on protecting rivers. Grasses, shrubs and trees are planted along the stream and river banks to create a buffer. Buffers improve water quality by filtering pollutants and sediments from soil runoff and they also help to keep the water cool by providing necessary shade.

Moving Water Alliance is an organisation that supports beach and river cleanup organisations and encourages riverbank restoration projects across the globe.

We can each do our part, it’s not difficult. It just requires a few minor adjustments to your lifestyle.

4 things we can do to help:
  1.  Use only environmentally-friendly cleaning products in your home as whatever you flush down your drain ends up back in the rivers.
  2. Preserver water by using it sparingly. That means you need to turn off your tap while you’re brushing your teeth and be sure to only use your washing machine when you can do a full load.  You should also consider timing your shower time as a 10-minute shower uses roughly 25 – 50 gallons of water, depending on your shower head flow. You can also consider catching water from your shower in a large bucket while you wait for the water to heat. This water can then be used to water your plants or flush your toilet. You could also consider installing a low-flow shower head to help you save more water.
  3. Since energy production requires water to cool power plants, it makes sense to turn off appliances and lights when not in use to save electricity and the water used for the cooling process.
  4. Since so much plastic ends up in our rivers, it also makes sense to avoid single-use plastic.  Take your own fabric shopping bags along when you buy groceries, and your own coffee mug when you buy takeout coffee. Eliminate plastic straws from your life and buy environmentally-friendly bamboo straws instead. Learn how to recycle properly so that your plastic doesn’t end up in our rivers.

Want to know how much water your household uses? Use this handy Water Calculator.

If we don’t take drastic action now, not only will we end up with heavily polluted rivers and reduced aquatic life, but we will suffer severe water scarcity which means many of our citizens will die. As it stands, 1.1 billion people currently lack access to water and a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year, according to WWF.

So next time you brush your teeth whilst leaving the tap running, think about how you will access clean and safe drinking water ten years from now.

Why the Amazon region is emitting more CO2 than it absorbs

The Amazon rainforest is the world’s largest tropical rainforest, covering much of northwestern Brazil and reaching all the way up into Colombia, Peru and other South American countries. It’s famous for its incredible biodiversity and is crisscrossed by thousands of rivers including the splendid Amazon river – the largest and longest river in the world.

One in ten known species in the world lives in the Amazon rainforest, making it the largest collection of plant and animal species in the world. The area also covers 3,344 formally acknowledged indigenous territories which make up 9% of the Amazon population. It’s estimated that 310,000 indigenous populations live there. The majority of the forest can be found in Brazil (almost 60%) and the Amazon basin is home to half of the world’s tropical rainforests.

When we spoke about the Amazon region in the past we always marvelled at how much C02 was being absorbed from the environment by this region. Well, that conversation is no longer applicable. Nowadays the Amazon is actually emitting more C02 than it absorbs! Bet you never thought you’d ever see that day arrive. But, sadly, here it is. Our very best friend has turned into a foe.

What is causing the increase in emissions?

Ongoing forest fires in the Amazon, together with ongoing deforestation, is responsible for the situation and impact over 90 per cent of plant and vertebrate species. While trees are growing they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but when they are burned they actually emit carbon dioxide.

Fires and deforestation in this region are causing rising temperatures and moisture stress during the dry season. Temperatures in the region have increased by almost 3 degrees Celsius in comparison to pre-industrial levels.

In 2020 an unbelievable 5.4 million acres were burnt in the Brazilian Amazon. (From the period May to November 2500 fires were reported).

Findings from an almost decade-long research project paint a very concerning picture of exactly what is going on in the Amazon region.

Four atmospheric areas in Amazonia, which spans more than 2 million square miles, were tested twice monthly over a nine-year period. The scientists, led by Professor Luciana Gatti (a female researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research aka INPE) found that emissions were higher in the eastern area of the rainforest and that the southeastern area is actually putting out more carbon dioxide than it absorbs and it’s therefore no longer a carbon sink. It’s now estimated that up to one-fifth of the Amazon, in total, is emitting carbon dioxide. So, to be clear, it is not the entire Amazonian region that emits carbon dioxide, but only a section. Most of the rainforest still absorbs carbon dioxide. But the fact that one-fifth (or about 20 per cent) of the Amazonian region is now emitting carbon dioxide is adding to our accelerating climate emergency. This is very concerning as it could be showing the beginning of a major tipping point for climate change.

According to a recent study, these emissions amount to a billion tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Amazon fires are set in an ongoing effort to clear more land for beef and soybean farming. (Ironically, Brazil’s soy industry actually loses $3.5bn a year from the extreme spike in the heat following forest fires). Since trees produce much of the region’s rainfall, fewer trees mean drier climates. And drier climates mean more forest fires. It becomes a vicious loop.

Furthermore, the agricultural industry is responsible for a large part of deforestation in the eastern part of Amazonia. Fourteen per cent of the seventeen per cent of forest reduction, to be exact. The Amazon rainforest is home to diverse ecosystems of plants and animals. If extensive forest reduction continues, what will happen to all these living beings there?

What does the future look like for Amazon?

Despite scientists bringing attention to the damage deforestation causes, 2019 was a particularly bad year for Amazonia, even after deforestation was on the decrease over a ten-year period.

In 2009 a study was conducted that showed a four per cent increase in global temperatures by 2100 would kill eighty-five per cent of the Amazon rainforest. This means that the rainforest’s ability to sequester fossil-fuel-derived C02 in the future is becoming severely diminished with each passing day.

According to Carlos Nobre, the man who co-authored the scientific study led by Professor Luciana Gatti, the finding suggests that within the next 30 years the Amazon rainforest could transform into a savanna.

What can we do?

Cutting emissions from fossil fuels is now more crucial than ever before. We must accelerate the move to green energy. We need rainforests to help us absorb carbon dioxide, and thanks to the slow worldwide adoption of green energy, we emitted a whopping 40 billion tons of C02 in 2019.

There is much we can do. We can start off by using public transport instead of driving, find ways to offset our carbon emissions when driving or flying, buy local products instead of importing them, reduce our consumption of paper and wood products, beef and oil and support communities in Amazonia.

Above all, we need to hold businesses accountable. If their business practices are socially or environmentally destructive, they should not receive our hard-earned incomes. We need to educate ourselves to become more responsible consumers. Do you know where and how your products are produced? If not, now is the time to really embrace sustainability and get educated. We need to read the labels on products carefully so we aren’t unwittingly adding to the problem. Alternatives do exist to products that are produced in environmentally destructive ways. Hemp and bamboo are two such examples. Hemp is not only used in clothing and ropes, but in building materials as well (known as Hempcrete and made from industrial hemp.)

We also need to be conscious of the packaging that our products arrive in. Can we ask for biodegradable packaging before we order? Mycelium packaging is the new sustainable kid on the block, and made from mushroom roots. Supply follows demand, so the more people who insist on sustainable packaging, the more sellers and manufacturers will be forced to switch away from plastic, cardboard and polystyrene – products that are notoriously damaging to the environment.

If we make these small changes in our daily lives, we can make a huge difference. We invite you to embrace sustainability so that we can save the Amazon rainforest and eventually help restore the area as a carbon sink.