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China Just Lost 27,000 Rivers, and That's No Joke

Maps were wrong, but environmental and population factors also caused mass dry-ups


While we here in the U.S. have been worrying about a measly ten endangered rivers, China just ate our lunch. Sure, the mighty Colorado isn’t even an actual river by the time it reaches the sea, but America can’t possibly win this one: China just announced they’re straight up missing 27,000 rivers.

According to the country’s newly released water census, China has 22,909 rivers with basin sizes of 100 square km or more. Here’s the problem: as recently as twenty years ago, China claimed to have 50,000 rivers of that size.

So where did they go?

One official in charge of the census told the South China Morning Post that a number of factors are to blame, including climate change, water and soil loss. But, chief among them, he names old, inaccurate maps dating back to the ’50s. In other words, that 50,000 number may have been fudged a bit, which is somewhat plausible. After all, the census lists 45,203 rivers with catchments of 50 square km and above.

But the story doesn’t end there.

In an interview with web magazine The Verge, Ma Jun, the director of an environmental NGO, said that China’s enormous population of 1.3 billion people strain the country’s water supply, especially as the nation rapidly industrializes and diverts more and more water resources with massive projects like the Three Gorges Dam.

“Our research has shown that in some areas, especially in north China, rivers are drying up or turning into seasonal rivers,” Jun told the publication.

Even the lower reaches of the 3,400 mile-long Yellow River, one of the cradles of Chinese civilization, are starting to go the way of the lower Colorado and run dry on an annual basis.

Poor regulation and agricultural overuse have exacerbated the problem, one expert told The Atlantic.

So there you have it: overuse, damming, mismanagement, and more overuse.

Add drought and horrific pollution into the mix and the future of China’s water supply looks grim.

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