Learning from shared scarcity: the Colorado River, the Yellow River and the world

One of the largest rivers in the world struggles to reach the ocean. Spread across a huge slice of a continent, its basin supports millions. Yet the weight of its work to irrigate and power booming farms and cities in an increasingly arid zone is straining the river to a breaking point. For many working in the western water space, this describes the Colorado. A river whose over-work and over-allocation, despite its fundamental role in sustaining life for half a continent, seems in many ways singular.  

Yet this is also the Yellow River. A river thousands of miles away that sustains a population four times that of the Colorado Basin is also confronting foundational issues of overuse and growing water scarcity. Even though they are an ocean apart, with different climates, physical, and institutional settings, water users in both basins are grappling with the realities of less fresh water compounded by accelerating climate impacts and unrelenting urban growth. 

The Colorado River and the Yellow River

The crises in both basins is also an opportunity. Communities in China and the western United States are fast-developing new approaches to water conservation and management. What can we learn from each other and where can we cross-fertilize learning to maximize our pace of progress in the face of climate change? 

This question was top of mind as EDF’s Brian Jackon visited Beijing to moderate a session at the World Water Congress and explore with China-based EDF colleagues key opportunities for shared learning. EDF’s decades of work developing community-driven approaches to groundwater management in the western United States, has helped us develop — alongside a suite of unique tools — a broad set of experiences and learning. As our work expands to another important geography, we seek to share and sharpen our understanding. While there is no silver bullet to water scarcity, there is fertile ground for collaboration and sharing solutions that can be adaptable across cultures, regions, and countries.     

 The Yellow River: a basin stretched thin 

That process of shared learning should begin with an appreciation for the particularities of the Yellow River Basin. The basin is an important ecological resource for China and a crucial area of economic development. The region has long struggled with issues of water scarcity, a poor ecosystem baseline, severe water quality and soil erosion, and a limited carrying capacity of the environment. With 51 billion cubic meters of annual runoff, the basin shoulders over 65 percent of China’s primary energy production while only consuming 33 percent. It also supports 12 percent of food production in China, feeding a population of more than 160 million in the basin alone.  

Despite the pulsing river at its heart, the Yellow River Basin is a severely resource-constrained and water-scarce region. While the basin accounts for nearly 18 percent of the total water resources in China, the per capita water availability is only a quarter of the national average. Furthermore, the water resource utilization rate in the Yellow River Basin is 80 percent, far exceeding the recommended ecological red line of 40 percent. In other words, ecosystems in the basin have far less water than they need. 

EDF’s China team is uniquely positioned to help the basin address its growing challenges. Our team has in-depth relationships with China’s top policymakers and regional stakeholders based on rich water, energy, agriculture and climate-related backgrounds. Our focus on the water-energy-food-ecosystem nexus puts us in a unique position to make the most of the basin’s overarching management and policy frameworks in order to tackle climate impacts and boost the region’s low-carbon transition. We believe that if the Yellow River Basin — the ‘energy basin’ of China — can successfully transition to become a low-carbon and green basin, it can significantly contribute not only to China’s carbon goals (carbon peak by 2030 and neutral by 2060) but also to essential global climate targets. 

Learning how to address water scarcity in both basins 

Within this broader framework of catalyzing a climate transition for the Yellow River Basin, we urgently need to address the issue of growing water scarcity. Groundwater is a particular area of concern. Globally, groundwater management remains plagued by a lack of reliable data. Groundwater decision-makers worldwide are driving a car without a fuel gauge.  

 In response to this immense data gap, EDF is building a series of data platforms that can adapt to different geographies. We’ve partnered with NASA, Google, the Desert Research Institute, and others on OpenET, a satellite-based platform that makes evapotranspiration (ET) data widely accessible to water users and managers, closing a critical knowledge gap in water management. We’re also pioneering a groundwater accounting platform that helps users accurately and efficiently track precisely how much water is used and how much is available –because you can’t manage what you don’t measure.  

 In addition to data platforms, we are co-developing land management approaches designed to reduce water use while yielding new benefits to landowners and communities. As water shortages drive reductions in agricultural acreage, communities need support in planning how to strategically repurpose land in ways that creatively maximize economic and ecosystem benefits and long-term food production. For instance, a county in California is using state funds to transition hundreds of acres of formerly irrigated farmland to solar development to help California meet its ambitious clean energy goals while achieving regional groundwater sustainability to sustain food production over the long term.  

 EDF is also looking at how enhancing water transactions can add flexibility to water management while benefiting communities and the environment. Where we once had cities buying and drying farms, we’re expanding tools for water leasing, ensuring that rural economies will not be sacrificed for urban growth.   

 Perhaps most importantly, we’re also looking at how we can fund these solutions. Great solutions are only as good as their ability to be implemented. And funding ultimately drives implementation. The work we do tries to bring in as many people, stakeholders, and sectors as possible to not only ensure better program design but also to maximize funding for solutions.  

 A time for collaboration 

While these data platforms, management approaches, and funding strategies have been deliberately designed to be adapted to diverse geographies, EDF has not yet widely applied them beyond the western United States. Whether and how they may prove useful to communities in the Yellow River Basin and elsewhere is a key point of exploration for us in the coming months and years.  

 Our first and most critical step is always to listen and to learn from communities and practitioners on the frontlines of change in watersheds such as the Yellow and the Colorado. While scarcity is a global phenomenon, it is also a fundamentally local reality. As these two great basins face an age of scarcity, it’s time for us to listen and learn from each other in order to hasten our transition to a more sustainable water future for all. 

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