Challenges and Difficulties of Living in River Deltas. A Review of the Major River Deltas in Asia and Africa

Scientific Essay, 2015

14 Pages

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Asia: Cumulative Effects of High Rate of Population Growth and Industrialization

Africa: the Silent Victim of Climate Change and Poverty





Masoud Kazem1,2

1-PhD. Student, Faculty of Society and Design, Bond University, Queensland Australia

2-Water Engineer, Tavan Ab consulting engineering co., Tehran, Iran


There is growing concerns owing the poor quality of life amongst the residents in the river deltas, particularly in the developing countries. In this paper, the current published researches have been investigated to classify the main outlined reasons of degradation of the life quality in the Asia and Africa's river deltas.The findings indicate that; although there is a common spectrum of similar reasons in both continents, but the importance sequences of the factors are dissimilar. In Asia, highpopulation growth beside the extensive industrialization policies is threatening the river deltas. In contrast, in Africa, poverty and low level of adaptation capability have been mentioned as the main reasons exacerbating the impacts of climate change; a sequence of destructive factors that have reduced the life quality in the river deltas.

Keywords:River Delta, LifeQuality, Industrialization, Poverty, Climate Change


River deltas have been one of the most important regions in the evolution of the human civilization. The initial form of human settlement shaped in these regions because access to fresh water and fertile soil were the golden keys of the agriculture-based civilizations. Even after industrial revolution, delta regions keep their importance due to the fact that these places contained the highest level of wealthand prosperity. However, nowadays, a glance over the statistics and media reveals that poverty, overcrowded unhealthy districts and shanty towns have become an interpretable feature of many of river deltas, especially in the developing countries. Now it seems that the human kind faces an important question; "Nowadays, in what extent living in river deltas can secure life standards such as access to healthy food, fresh water, sanitation, job opportunities and other welfare factors?"

In order to answer this question, we should consider that the modern Homo-Sapience has changed the appearance of river deltas during less than one century. The unique features of our water containing planet that have been constant for thousands of years, now changed extensively. Almost all around the world, the dam construction policy has accelerated since the end of Second World War (Susser, 1985,Lowi, 1995 andWang et al, 2013).Not only inEurope and United States; Asian large rivers (such as Yellow, Yangtze, Pearl, Chao Phraya, Indus, Krishna, Godavari, etc.) have been also affected by this policy. According to a comprehensive research, the sediment transportation in these rivers has been disrupted in a way that the total sediment load reduced by more than 80% over last 60 years (Liu and Lu, 2014). It means that the soil fertility has been reduced and now, more amounts of fertilizers are required. Consequently, the higher level of poisons and chemical substances (some of them with negative and some others with unknown effects on the environment) has been injected in the soil and water body of river deltas. The next consequences of this disaster have shaped a vicious circle threatening the survival of delta regions. If the negative effects of other human activities such as navigation, salt farms, industrial and urban disposals and fishery being considered, the seriousness of this tragedy would become more tangible. However, the human activities must not be considered as the only cause of these challenges. Consequently,answering to the mentioned question needs a comprehensive study on the long list of river deltas all around the world. As a first round assessment approach,a review over the current researches can reveal the main difficulties that residents in the delta regions are challenging with.

This article contains a review over the recent researches in various fields in order to provide a comprehensive image of the human made disasters in the major deltas in two different continents; Asia and Africa. Although there are common difficulties in the delta regions of the both continents, the main reason of the challenges may be slightly different. In the next paragraphs, the results of a series of current researches will be outlined in order to conclude the origins of the mentioned disasters in each continent.

Asia: Cumulative Effects of High Rate of Population Growth andIndustrialization

The life quality in the river delta regions in Asia seems to beevidently connected to the rapid economic growth and low price labor emerged from the growing population in this continent. However, in this context, the pros and cons must be investigated.

The high population growth in Asia has changed a wide range of socio-economic equilibrium over the previous decades. An assessment of the global environmentindicates that decisions made in China and India will be potentially one of the most important factors shaping the future global sustainability (Galli et al, 2012). In this section, a review over the current condition of major delta regions is provided for four high populated Asian countries; Bangladesh, china, India and Vietnam.

The change in the irrigation pattern is a potential cause of the declining life quality. In the early years of the 21th century, In Bangladesh, many hand pumps supplying the drink water has become dry because of the high level of groundwater diversion to the irrigation. As a consequence of this expansive irrigation activity, more that 20 million people are at the risk of water contaminated by arsenic. Furthermore, the concept of water as a good, not as a right, has become predominant by the growth of shrimp aquaculture for export (Crow and Sultana, 2002). Although it is very difficult to judge about the tradeoff between the increasing food production and the degradation of environment,but the negative impact of shrimp farms in the water salinity is a considerable issue that cast its shadow over the life standards in this region (Hossain and Dearing, 2013).

Although farming activities in Bangladesh were the major reason of challenges in the delta regions, other forms of human activities may also affect the environment in more catastrophic way.Yangtze River Delta (China) also experienced cropland loss due to the industrialization and population concentration which led to a considerable decrease in the grain production. This reduction has happened in two major phase between 1980–2005 and 2005–2010 with loss of about 80 and 66% of grain production respectively. The new industrialized zones have been established on the ground with high irrigation capability and high soil fertility. On the other hand, cropland recovery was applied extensively in regions with low irrigation capacity that caused the chronic food insecurity in Yangtze River Delta (Liu, 2015). There was also a similar pattern in the Pearl River delta, South of China, where the inflow of capital and industrial funds motivated a great number of rural laborers to leave agriculture in favor of factories in 1990's (Lin, 2001).By considering this pattern, the low quality soils must recover the vacancy of reach soil via increasing reliance on agrochemicals. Furthermore, the remaining potential fields are near the industrialized regions that may contaminated by industrial waste. Subsequently, there is anincreasinganxietyabout the accumulative sedimentation of harmful substances such as nitrates and heavy metals in agricultural soils and also the crops inChina (Wong et al,2002). This issue becomes more serious as there is evidence of correlation between the changed landscape pattern and water quality variables (Cl−, EC, NH3–N, and NO3–N) in these regions. As a case study, a research in the Yellow River delta reveals that the heavy metals and Arsenic were closely correlated and originated from common pollution sources (Bai et al, 2012). Despite the past, nowit is very obligatory to establish an effective monitoring and management system to keep the minimum standards of a sustainable environment in the river systems of china damaged by human activities (Zhou, 2012).

The negative effects of the mentioned activities not only reduce the quality of life, but also may make the human life absolutely impossible. As one of the biggest river delta in the world, the Indus delta contains millions of people supplied by economic, environmental, and ecological benefits of thefresh water and the fertile soil. However, a chain of major damsin the upstream has disrupted the natural flow in a way that for most times no water is released to the Delta region; the condition that has brought the delta to the brink of death and annihilation (Memon, 2005).The condition is not better in the adjacent country; India. In the Cauvery delta, the quality of groundwater supplying both domestic and agricultural requirements has been investigated in various researches. In a case study, 55 % of samples gathered from shallow wells and wells in coastal parts could not fit for drinking regarding the World Health Organization and Bureau of Indian Standards. In another case, Mahanadi basin, a relatively dense concentration of heavy metals has been observed in the estuarine sediments (Sundaray et al, 2014).

Furthermore, a damaged environmental system can also affect the life quality in the form of short term difficulties, In the Mekong delta, in Vietnam, unhygienic water is known as the main reason of more than 90% of disease cases (Herbst et al, 2009). Furthermore, in this basin, hydropower development programs are recognized as the catastrophically threatening activities for fish biodiversity and food security (Ziv et al, 2012). In a larger scale, macro scaleanalysis indicates that Vietnamese landscape is subjected to challenging changes that can potentially defect the welfare in the national level; natural forest losses, shrinking biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, losses of paddy rice and other agricultural lands in the Red River Delta and the Mekong River delta. Theses disasters may be exacerbated by more frequent stormy floods (Rutten et al, 2014).A survey in the socio-economic data of 1999 shows that most of the poor live in the Red River Delta and the Mekong River Delta; However, the inequality is relatively lower than international average indicating the high spread of poverty among a large population (Minot et al, 2006).Changing the life style or agriculture techniques in this relatively large population group is not easy. However, a new approach to the agriculture system has become more essential because the current rice-maize system, as the traditional cropping system in the Vietnam major deltas, is reported not to be sustainable and its revenue margin is narrowing in the most part of the potential areas especially in the Red River delta (Le, 2014).

Although in the overwhelming majority of the existing researches, the direct effects of human activities have been mentioned as the main reason of the current uneven condition in the Asian river deltas, but some indirect effects of the global modernization must be considered to. For example, Mahanadi delta experienced a series of frequent drought and flood in the previous decades as a result of global climate change. Uneven distribution of precipitation (Heavy rainfall in May and September and severe drought in November and December) had a sizable negative effect on the crop yield. (Raychaudhuri et al, 2015)

Africa: the SilentVictim of Climate Change and Poverty

In the previous section, a review on the current researches about the life quality in Asian river deltas revealed that the direct effects of human activities, in both local and global scale, might be considered as the origin of the existing disasters. However, in this section, the results of the similar researches in African cases may be concluded as a relatively different outcome.

There are particular kinds of unexpected reasons that threaten the life quality of the residents in some African river deltas arose from the concentration of the large population and poverty. As a notably case, in the Okavango delta (Botswana), the general prevalence of HIV/AIDS has earnestlyjammed fishing activities, and consequently the food security amongst the 29% of households (Ngwenya and Mosepele, 2007). In some other cases, there are economic attempts to increase the regional wealth to prevent from the social disasters; however it is not very simple to compare the two sides of this sword. In the Niger delta, following the dredging of an oil well access canal, undesirable changes happened in the water quality indexes such as the Ph., Dissolved Oxygen (DO), TDS and sulfate (Ohimain et al, 2008). Although it was expected that oil extraction would increase the regional wealth in the Niger delta, but the community development partnership applied by international oil companies for poverty reduction have not been effectivelyfruitful(Idemudia, 2009).

In addition to the mentioned issues, the impacts of climate change have been extensively argued in the recent literatures. These impacts seem to be more serious in Africa because of severe direct effects, high agricultural dependency, and limited capacity for the adaptation efforts (Collier, 2008). Kenya's Tana River Delta has experienced catastrophic challenges arose from the climate change. For thousand years, the agro-ecological production systems had been adopted to the flooding regime of the river; farming, fishery and livestock-rearing are the main resources of wealth that each of them blooms in certain periods of the flooding events. The local population had adopted its economic activity to this long term cycle. Despite this intellectual solution, the decrease in water availability affected each subcomponent of the production systems, which ruined the economic structure in the 1990s (Leauthaud et al, 2013).In terms of low capacity for adaptation efforts, the Senegal River delta is a notable case. Changes in temperature, relative humidity, precipitation and evaporation, in combination with the current water resources allocation pattern to the agriculture sector has accelerated the lands degradation and water salinity in this region. Consequently there is a strong need to new adapted approaches to assure sustainable food security in this area (Diack, 2015).

Even in more developed countries as like as Egypt, the negative effects of climate change are extensive; the Nile-Delta is subjected to shoreline erosion and see level rise both emerging from the climate change. Increasing temperature has accelerated the evaporation rate that exacerbated the decreasing water levels in the Nile River in combination with reduced precipitation. Consequently, rising urban population relying on groundwater put a higher pressure on the groundwater quality. This condition causes serious challenges to ensure the supply of drinking water and irrigation. (Mabrouk et al, 2013).

Owing the outlined causes, the life quality in the African delta regions is threatened by accumulative effects of climate change, poverty and lack of adaptation capability. Although these reasons might be addressed in the Asian cases, but the level of engagement is considerably different between these two continents.


There is a long list of evidences indicates that access tothe basic life requirements such as healthy food, fresh water, sanitation, work opportunities and other welfare factors is noticeably difficult in delta rivers in the developing countries. A review on the current literatures about the relatedchallenges in Asian and African river deltas indicates that despite similarities, there are different sources for the major mentioned reasons. In Asia, beside the climatic reasons, the direct effects of industrialization, as a main factor, have exacerbated the negative effects of overcrowding. New forms of agriculture (in response to the growing global demand), extensive use of fertilizers to increase soil agricultural capacity, widespread damming projects, establishment of factories using low cost labor, and high amounts of urban and industrial disposals have been addressed in this context. In contrast, an overwhelming majority of the published researches about African delta regions outline the poverty and lack of adaptation capability as the factors that worsen the effects of climate change; a global phenomenon that less industrialized African nation have no major roles in, but they must compensate the undesirable impacts.


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Challenges and Difficulties of Living in River Deltas. A Review of the Major River Deltas in Asia and Africa
Bond University Australia  (Faculty of Society and Design)
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River Delta, Life Quality, Industrialization, Poverty, Climate Change, Asia, Africa
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Masoud Kazem (Author), 2015, Challenges and Difficulties of Living in River Deltas. A Review of the Major River Deltas in Asia and Africa, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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