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Sustainability of Engineered Rivers in Arid Lands (SERIDAS)

Water

Watershed Protection

Assessment of Risk in the World's Rivers

Modern river engineering is just a century old. It started in two rivers: Nile and Rio Grande. British engineers closed the first Aswan Dam in 1902. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed Elephant Dam, an hour’s drive north of El Paso, Texas, in 1916.

Engineered rivers are the lifeblood of irrigated agriculture, produce electricity, and supply water for industry and cities in the river basins. By now most large rivers in the world have been engineered—equipped with multiple dams, bypass canals, and distribution channels. River engineering brings large benefits to farmers and cities.

It also creates risks. In this project we study the most important ones in order to find out how the rivers will do in 2040 and 2060.

We look at both physical and social drivers of change: climate change/variation, reservoir sedimentation, surface-to-groundwater connection, and environmental flow on nature’s side; population and land use changes, as well as options for more efficient water use and better policies, on the social side.

SERIDAS stands for Sustainability of Engineered Rivers in Arid Lands. We assembled a team of river experts to project water supply and demand for a group of heavily engineered rivers worldwide. We also invited a second group of team members who can advise the river experts on how to deal with future risks.

River Characteristics

Our rivers share these characteristics:

  • The main water supply comes from mountains, primarily from winter snowpack
  • Hundreds of kilometers downstream, the local climate is arid or semi-arid
  • However, fertile soil, washed down during annual floods in pre-reservoir times, has given life to some of the most productive agricultural regions in the world—provided there is water to irrigate plants
  • This combination—fertile soil and river water (sometimes combined with ground water) – gave rise to some of the world’s great civilizations; – Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, the Americas

Beginning a hundred years ago, and accelerating during the second half of the last century, SERIDAS rivers were heavily engineered. The ancient river civilizations lasted for millennia.

What are the prospects for today’s river cultures that depend on modern engineering?

The SERIDAS Rivers

To cover a variety of cases, SERIDAS includes:

  • Large national rivers: São Francisco, Murray-Darling, and Yellow
  • Large international rivers: Euphrates, Tigris, Nile, Colorado, Rio Grande
  • Small regional rivers: Jucar, Limari

As the project unfolds we will look for similarities and differences between the rivers and their basins. We are particularly interested to find out how river stakeholders and managers are preparing for the future.  Whether different management regimes—multi-state, international or regional—make a difference in being pro-active.