Being stuck “up a river with no paddle” is an expression of a sticky situation that you just can’t get out of. But if that river is in the northern hemisphere this summer, chances are the paddle won’t be useful anyway.
A painful lack of rain and relentless heat waves are drying up rivers in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Many shrink in length and width. Patches of river bed protruding above the water are commonplace. Some rivers have dried up so much that they have become practically impassable.
The man-made climate crisis is fueling extreme weather across the world, which not only impacts rivers, but also the people who depend on them. Most people on the planet depend on rivers in one way or another, whether for drinking water, to irrigate food, for energy or to ship goods.
See what six of them look like from space.
The Colorado River is drying up on its banks and thinning as a historic drought in the western United States shows few signs of abating. The river is crucially maintained by two of the largest reservoirs in the country, and to protect the river basin, the government has implemented mandatory water cutoffs and asked states to come up with additional action plans.
One of these reservoirs, Lake Mead, shrinks as water levels drop to “dead pool” status – the point at which the reservoir will not be high enough to release water downstream through a blocade. Its water levels have been on a downward trend since 2000, but have seen a steeper decline since 2020. The lake has fallen so low in the past year that wild finds have been made, including human remains in a barrel – an alleged homicide victim from decades ago. And the consequences of the Colorado River crisis are enormous: approximately 40 million people in seven states and Mexico depend on the river’s water for consumption, agriculture and electricity.
The Yangtze River in Asia is drying up on its banks and its bed is emerging in some areas. But it is the tributaries of the Yangtze that are already intensely dried out. China has announced a nationwide drought alert for the first time in nine years, and its heat wave is the longest in six decades.
The impact of the Yangtze drying up has been enormous. In Sichuan, a province of 84 million people, hydropower accounts for about 80% of power capacity. Much of that comes from the Yangtze River, and as its flow slows, power generation has declined, forcing authorities there to order all of its factories to shut down for six days. The province receives about half of the usual rainfall and some reservoirs have completely dried up, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
The Rhine originates in the Swiss Alps, crosses Germany and the Netherlands, then flows to the North Sea. It’s a crucial channel for European shipping, but right now it’s a nightmare to navigate.
Parts of the river bed have emerged above the surface of the water, which means that ships trying to cross it have to navigate around a series of obstacles, which slows down the whole process.
The Rhine has many different gauges along the way, including at Kaub, just west of Frankfurt, Germany, where water levels fell to 32 centimeters (12.6 inches). Shipping companies generally consider less than 40cm on the Rhine to be too low to worry about, and in Kaub less than 75cm usually means a container ship has to reduce its load to around 30%, economists say of Deutsche Bank. Low water levels also mean businesses pay higher levees to pass, and all of these factors make shipping more expensive, a cost usually passed on to consumers.
The Po River crosses the top of Italy and empties to the east into the Adriatic Sea. It is fed by winter snow in the Alps and heavy rains in spring, and has a steep drop that brings rapid flow. Generally, devastating floods are more of a problem around this river.
But now the Po is very different. The winter was dry in northern Italy, so the snow provided little water, and the spring and summer were also dry, plunging the region into its worst drought ever. for seven decades. It’s so dried up that a World War II bomb was recently discovered amidst its declining waters.
A big problem is that millions of people depend on the Po for their livelihood, mainly through agriculture. Around 30% of Italian food is produced along the Po River, and some of the country’s most famous exports, such as Parmesan, are made here.
The Loire in France is home to a valley of vineyards that produce some of the most famous wines in the world. The river stretches for around 600 miles and is considered France’s last wild river, supporting biodiversity ecosystems throughout the valley, much of which is protected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and culture.
Parts of the river are already quite shallow, but its levels and flow can change rapidly depending on weather conditions and melting snow at its source. Some sections are so dry from lack of rain and extreme heat that people can walk through.
Satellite images of the French town of Saumur show more riverbed than exposed water in the Loire. The patches of land surrounding it in the valley are mostly brown and withered – a year ago they were green and lush. Authorities release water from dams into the river, mainly to make sure there is enough to cool four nuclear power plants who are seated along it.
The Danube is the longest river in Western Europe and a crucial shipping route that crosses 10 countries. In Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria, workers dredge the river just to make sure ships can still navigate it.
It’s not in as bad a state as some of the other rivers in Europe, but countries like Hungary are so dependent on the Danube for tourism that the impacts are already being felt. Some cruise ships were unable to cross parts of the river to even reach Hungary. Those still operating cannot stop on their normal routes as many stations have had to close due to falling water levels on the river banks. An average 1,600-ton ship can now only sail the Hungarian stretch without any cargo, according to the country’s tourist board.