Salinisation a people problem or a climate problem?

The ongoing falling water levels, salinisation and toxic dust problems across many of the world's saline endorheic basins are not a result of climate change, but reflect a global crisis of human interference and engineering natural drainage patterns to enhance agricultural outputs. Human intervention to strengthen irrigation-based agriculture and the use of pesticides and fertilisers always creates problems in the sumps of all endorheic basins in arid settings. A need to feed an ever-expanding population, which at the moment we are doing quite well, creates salinisation problems in the saline sump regions of any endorheic or limited-drainage basin located in arid and semi-arid settings worldwide. Witness the current environmental issues in the Lower Lakes region of the River Murray in Australia, Korabogaz Gol, Lop Nur, Lake Chad, the Dead Sea, Great Salt Lake, Lake Urmia, the Aral Sea, and so on. Across the world, a thirsty evergrowing multitude of people is what drives salinisation in these basins, not climate change, which does little more than exacerbate the root of the problem.

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A dust storm across Highway 80 in the vicinity of the Salton Sea (photo by Tamar Granovsky)

Who’s to blame?

It is easy for politicians and religious leaders to point to anthropogenically-driven climate change as the driver of lake volume shrinkage and a lack of free water in the downstream parts of the drainage basin. Climate change may be exacerbating the problem, but the fundamental cause of all the downstream difficulties in rivers flowing into semi-arid areas is a simple one. There are just too many people vying for a set of finite resources. We have over-exploited and over-extracted water and degraded the soils and other resources in the drainage catchments of all these shrinking lakes. Yet today and well into the foreseeable future there will be more and more people relying on increasingly limited water and soil resources. Politicians and religious leaders are mostly unwilling or unable to address the social mores and religious superstitions that drive an expanding human population, with the associated issues of poverty and a lack of education, especially of women. Until these causitive factors are addressed, the effects of overpopulation will continue to intensify and ultimately degrade finite global resources such as freshwater and soil quality.

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It is easy for politicians and religious leaders to point to anthropogenically-driven climate change as the driver of lake volume shrinkage and a lack of free water in the drainage basin's downstream parts. Climate change may be exacerbating the problem, but the fundamental cause of all the downstream difficulties in rivers flowing into semi-arid areas is a simple one. There are just too many people vying for a set of finite resources. We have over-exploited and over-extracted water and degraded the soils and other resources in all these shrinking lake drainage catchments. Yet today and well into the foreseeable future there will be more and more people relying on increasingly limited water and soil resources. Politicians and religious leaders are mostly unwilling or unable to address the social mores and religious superstitions that drive an expanding human population, with the associated issues of poverty and a lack of education, especially of women. Until these causative factors are addressed, the effects of overpopulation will continue to intensify and ultimately degrade finite global resources such as freshwater and soil quality.

Water volumes and lake levels in most of the world's larger saline lakes in continental endorheic basins are shrinking due to anthropogenic over-extraction in the water catchment, largely unrelated to short-term climate oscillations (after Wurtsbaugh et al., 2017).

Malthusian consequences

In the long run, the quality of any over-exploited resource, be it water or food or ore minerals, must suffer. In terms of the driving mechanisms, Malthus had it right back in the late 1700s. In his "Essay on the Principle of Population," first published in 1798 and expanded in subsequent editions, the Reverent Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) observed:

That the increase of population is necessarily limited by means of subsistence,
That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and,
That the superior power of population is repressed by moral restraint, vice and misery.

Currently, through increased use of fertilisers (the green revolution), genetically-modified crops and pesticides, we continue to be capable of feeding the world. So today, there is less poverty and more healthy people (on a per capita basis) than 50 years ago. But unless the world becomes a more rational and less superstitious place, at some point we will reach the niche limit for the rising human population.

Populists on the left and right can get involved in arguments of the impact of humanity on climate change or lack of effect. The real reason is much simpler; Too many people! But in my mind, a time when politicians, religious leaders, and their constituents start insisting on effective measures to limit population growth across our world will not happen until populations and cultures begin to collapse — a time of vice and misery, as predicted by the good reverend Malthus more than 200 years ago.  

References

Wurtsbaugh, W. A., C. Miller, S. E. Null, R. J. DeRose, P. Wilcock, M. Hahnenberger, F. Howe, and J. Moore, 2017, Decline of the world’s saline lakes: Nature Geoscience, v. 10, p. 816.

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Salton Sea

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