15 Worst Drying Lakes in the World
The world is running out of fresh water!
Many of the lakes on this list will dry up within years (a few already have, more or less), but some may take decades to disappear entirely. The reasons vary, but most will expire because of drought, deforestation, overgrazing, pollution, climate change or water diversions - or all of the aforementioned. Will anybody care? People who live near the lakes and depend on them for making money and/or feeding themselves will almost certainly care a great deal. Most likely, scientists the world over will find this issue concerning as well. How about you?
This list is written in no particular order and includes both lakes and seas - that is, large bodies of water (fresh or salty) surrounded by land.
Please keep reading!
1. Lake Chad
Dramatic environmental change has hit Africa in recent decades, and the shrinking of Lake Chad is a primary aspect of this pending catastrophe. Once the size of the Caspian Sea, Lake Chad, located in west-central Africa, has lost about 95 per cent of its water since the 1960s. Considered an endorheic body of water (or closed hydrological system), Lake Chad is a shallow lake (30 to 40 feet deep) in an arid grassland and, at one time, covered nearly 400,000 square miles - but that was about 5000 BCE, way before recent times of drought and human expansion in sub-Saharan Africa. Consequently, the lake’s surface area has shrunk to about 520 square miles, though since 2007 its girth has rebounded somewhat, so maybe Lake Chad won’t disappear entirely any time soon. But if issues such as overuse by people, climate change and desertification are not addressed, it may vanish sooner rather than later.
2. Aral Sea
Located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea is another endorheic lake and one of the four largest lakes in the world as recently as the 1989. Once covering an area of over 26,000 square miles, the Aral Sea is now only about 10 per cent of its original size and has split into four separate bodies of water. The main reason for this desiccation is that since the 1940s much of the water that feeds the lake has been diverted for agricultural usage, primarily to grow cotton, rice, melons and cereal. Unfortunately, this water diversion has mostly destroyed the fishing industry of the lake. Moreover, the poorly constructed irrigation canals used for the diversion have wasted 30 to 75 per cent of the diverted water. Now the Aral Sea’s remaining water is much saltier and more polluted and therefore practically useless. But the people in the area seem resigned to the fate of the Aral Sea, so it may dry up entirely any day now.
3. Lake Poopo
Located in the Bolivian Altiplano Mountains, Lake Poopo has, in recent years, become little more than a seasonal lake - and a very salty, polluted one as well (much of the time only its wetlands survive from one year to the next). Since the Lake Poopo exists in a very dry area and is only about 10 feet deep on average, and is also found at a very high altitude - more than 12,000 feet – it has a high evaporation rate. Unfortunately, only one river feeds into the lake, the Desaquadero River, which flows from Lake Titicaca, but this lake is also losing water, so the river is too. This water loss is caused by recent drought and climate change, which has led to the shrinkage of many glaciers throughout South America. Concerned about the demise of Lake Poopo, it has been designated for conservation by the Ramsar Convention. Tragically, this alarm bell may have been wrung much too late. But we can always hope, of course.
4. Lake Urmia
Lake Urmia is a hypersaline lake located in Iran. Formerly the largest saltwater lake in the Middle East, covering over 2,000 square miles, Lake Urmia has shrunk to only 10 per cent or its original size and now holds only five per cent of the water it once had. The reasons for this dramatic water loss are many: the 13 rivers entering the lake have been dammed; increased groundwater pumping has reduced flows into the lake; water diversions; climate change and drought. Unfortunately for the people of Iran, if Lake Urmia vanishes, so will the tourism it attracts, and the lake’s marshes will dry up too, no longer supporting 226 species of birds and many other animals. But Lake Urmia may survive at least somewhat; Iranian officials are working to persuade neighboring countries such as Armenia and Azerbaijan to divert water to help refill this dwindling water resource.
5. Great Salt Lake
Located in the state of Utah of the United States of America, Great Salt Lake, aka America’s Dead Sea, is the largest salt water lake in the Western Hemisphere, though at times it’s considerably smaller than normal and covering about 1,700 square miles. Far saltier than seawater, Great Salt Lake nevertheless supports life such as brine shrimp, brine flies and numerous species of birds. Great Salt Lake is a pluvial lake and the largest section of Lake Bonneville, a fresh water paleolake that existed in the Great Basin from 14,000 to 16,000 years ago. Since the American Southwest has been drying out since the end of the Pleistocene, so have all the lakes in the Great Basin, including Great Salt Lake, which will probably survive for quite some time; but when drought and climate change are taken into account, it could eventually dry up and become the largest salt flat in the US.
6. Lake Tanganyika
One of the African Great Lakes, Lake Tanganyika is located in Tanzania and considered the second largest lake by volume in the world; it’s also considered an ancient lake - one that has carried water for more than a million years. The lake supports numerous plants and animals and people, and particularly attractive are its tropical fish. However, the productivity of the lake has declined since the 1800s. Anyway, unlike an endorheic lake, Lake Tanganyika has a large inflow and outflow of water. However, in the past, the lake had no outflow, because of changing geological conditions, thus making it partly endorheic. At present, Lake Tanganyika has an outflow through the Lunkuga and Congo Rivers; but this could change if water is diverted from the inflow of the lake, thus lowering its level so the rivers can't drain it. Then the eventual demise of Lake Tanganyika could happen within decades or even years.
7. Lake Assal
Located in Djibouti, in the so-called Horn of Africa, Lake Djibouti, covering about 20 square miles, rests at the bottom of a volcanic crater, some 500 feet below sea level; only the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee are deeper; and only the Don Juan Pond in Antarctica has a higher salt content in its water – ten times that of seawater, in fact. A virtual hellhole, since it’s always very hot near the lake, over 120 degrees F in the summer and just about as hot during the winter, Lake Djibouti has no outflow except from evaporation. Interestingly, since ancient times people have mined the salt flats near the lake, and there’s millions of tons left to be extracted. So, if Lake Assal eventually dries up, few people may lament its passing, since the salt can be hauled away for many years, providing people with a continuous way of making money.
8. Lake Faguibine
Found in the Sahel region of Mali and not far from the famous city of Timbuktu, Lake Faguibine, doesn’t exist much of the time, unless the Niger River, about 75 miles south, floods over, filling some small lakes to the north and eventually adding water to Lake Faguibine as well. Unfortunately, the Niger River doesn’t flood much these days, because drought has hit the Sahel since the late 1970s. Also, the Niger River had been dammed in recent years, reducing its flow. But, fortunately for farmers in the area, the soil where Lake Faguibine is – or used to be - is very fertile. So, if there’s adequate water for crops, provided by rainfall and/or the lake, people can engage in subsistence farming and raise cattle in the nearby grasslands. Therefore, if Lake Faguibine survives to some extent, people in the area may have cause for optimism.
9. The Dead Sea
Bordered by Israel and Jordan, the Dead Sea, more than 1,400 feet below sea level, is the lowest point on land in the world. This hypersaline body of water supports little life, therefore its name. However, though dead, the water has attracted tourists for thousands of years. About 2,000 years ago, Herod the Great came here to partake of its reputed healthy water. Another terminal lake, with no outlet, salt and minerals have been building up in the Dead Sea for two million years, making it a source of salt, asphalt and potash. Unfortunately, the Dead Sea has shrunk dramatically in current times, mainly because the flow of the Jordan River, the main source of water for the Dead Sea – other than scant rainfall – has been reduced for agricultural use.
The Red Sea – Dead Sea Conveyance project, established by Jordan, plans to build a pipeline from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, adding very salty water to the Dead Sea in the process. The first phase of the project is scheduled to be completed in 2021. But, according to “Saving the Dead Sea” (2019), an episode of Nova on PBS, people are concerned that mixing water from one sea to the other could make the Dead Sea turn red and otherwise change its chemical composition as well.
10. Lake Titicaca
Beautiful Lake Titicaca, lying between Peru and Bolivia, is perched atop the Andean Altiplano at over 12,000 feet in elevation; it is the largest lake in South America and has a surface area of over 3,200 square miles. Although the lake doesn’t seem in eminent danger of drying up, its water level has decreased since 2000, because rainy seasons have grown shorter and glaciers in the area are shrinking, reducing flows into the lake. Moreover, the lake has only two types of outflow: the Desaquadero River and evaporation, the latter of which accounting for 90 per cent of its water loss. So, if the river dries up, the lake will become a closed one, similar to many others on this list, and could eventually become another fetid, hypersaline mud hole. Also suffering from water pollution, the Global Nature Fund in 2012 labeled it the “Threatened Lake of the Year.” It seems safe to suggest that if Lake Titicaca begins drying up to a great degree, the entire world may panic!
11. Lake Puzhal
Lake Puzhal, a rain-fed reservoir near Chennai, India’s sixth largest city, is losing water at an unprecedented rate and may soon run completely dry. The monsoon rains that feed the lake have been unreliable since 2017. To compensate for the low level of water in the lake, the area’s 10 million residents have to rely on homemade wells, which often produce water that is not potable. Water has been trucked into the region to relieve some of its thirsty populace. To make matters worse, India has been experiencing rising temperatures since 2004, producing heat waves that have killed hundreds of folks. Shockingly, four other lakes near Chennai are also running dry, and more than 20 cities in India may run out of ground water by 2020.
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12. Owens Lake
Owens Lake had plenty of water until 1913, when the water of the Owens River was diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a prime artery into thirsty LA. Located in southeastern California, about five miles south of Lone Pine, with Mt. Whitney in the distance, Owens Lake is little more than a saline puddle compared to what it used to be – 12 miles long, 8 miles wide and as much as 50 feet deep. Some of the flow from the Owens River has been restored, but the lake is now more of a source of alkaline dust than water. This troublesome, often wind-blown dirt carries carcinogens such as cadmium, nickel and arsenic, putting the health of nearby residents at risk. Nevertheless, the Owens Lake area, a wetlands site, is considered an important birding area, though no plans are ongoing for restoring Owens Lake to anything like the large, healthy lake it used to be.
13. Poyang Lake
Located in Jiangxi Province in southeastern China, Poyang Lake is the largest fresh water lake in China. In the recent past, Poyang Lake used to cover as much as 1,400 square miles, though as recently as 2012 it covered only about 77 square miles, and in 2016 it nearly dried up entirely. Drought, sand quarrying and storage for the Three Gorges Dam are responsible for this dramatic shrinking of the lake’s surface area. There’s a plan to build a dam so the lake’s level can be maintained more easily, but this construction could have devastating effect for local wildlife, particularly the Chinese finless porpoise, which is near extinction. Notably, the lake is considered a kind of Chinese Bermuda Triangle, because scores of ships have disappeared while sailing upon it, including a Japanese naval vessel carrying 200 sailors during WW II!
14. Lake Chapala
Located near the city of Guadalajara, Lake Chapala is Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. Since the 1950s the lake has been a major source of drinking water, but since 1979 the level of the lake has dropped to records lows. Because Lake Chapala is a shallow lake, only 20 to 30 feet deep, its water level can fluctuate greatly within a short period of time. In recent years, an increase of urban, industrial and agricultural consumption of its water has caused the lake to shrink, and increased sedimentation from the Lerma River, Lake Chapala’s major source of water, has raised water temperature, increasing evaporation. Simply put, as the lake gets smaller, it shrinks as a greater rate. In 2004, the Global Nature Fund labeled Lake Chapala as “Threatened Lake of the Year.”
15. Lake Mead
Lake Mead, a reservoir on the Colorado River in Nevada, has the largest capacity of water of any reservoir in the US. But since 1983 Lake Mead has shrunk because of drought and the increased water demand of southwestern states and California, reaching record lows in water level from 2010 to the present. In fact, in July 2019, Lake Mead was only 40 per cent full, holding 10.4 million acre feet of water. Nevertheless, as long as runoff from the Rocky Mountains maintain a strong outflow of water for the Colorado River, the lake probably won’t disappear any time soon, though uncertainty brought about by climate change could cause the lake to shrink even more in the coming years.
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© 2018 Kelley Marks