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Environmental threats to salt lakes and the likely status of inland saline ecosystems in 2025

By William David Williams


Salt lakes are geographically widespread, numerous and a significant part of the world's inland aquatic ecosystems. They are important natural assets with considerable aesthetic, cultural, economic, recreational, scientific, conservation and ecological values. Some features, notably the composition of the biota, uniquely distinguish them from other aquatic ecosystems. The paper reviews the nature of environmental impacts and their effects upon salt lakes. Its aims are two-fold: to draw attention to the extensive damage that salt lakes have now undergone, and to indicate the likely status of salt lakes in 2025. Salt lakes develop as the termini of inland drainage basins where hydrological inputs and outputs are balanced. These conditions occur in arid and semi-arid regions (approximately one-third of total world land area). Many human activities threaten or have already impacted salt lakes, especially surface inflow diversions, salinization and other catchment activities, mining, pollution, biological disturbances (e.g. introduction of exotic species), and anthropogenically-induced climatic and atmospheric changes. The effects of such activities are always adverse and include changes to the natural character of salt lakes, loss of biodiversity and fundamental limnological changes. The effects are geographically widespread, mostly irreversible, and degrade the values of salt lakes. Four salt lakes are discussed, namely the Aral Sea in central Asia, Mono Lake in California, USA, and Lake Eyre and Lake Cantara South, in Australia. By 2025, most natural salt lakes will have undergone some adverse change. Many permanent ones will have decreased in size and increased in salinity, and many unnatural saline water-bodies will have appeared. In certain regions, many seasonally-filled salt lakes are likely to be drier for longer periods. The extent to which episodically-filled salt lakes will change by 2025 will largely depend upon the nature of climate change in arid regions. Objective cost/benefit analyses of adversely affecting salt lakes are rare, and international bodies have not properly recognized salt lakes as important inland aquatic ecosystems. To redress this situation, there is a need to raise awareness of: (1) the values of salt lakes, (2) the nature of threats and impacts from human activities, and (3) their special management requirements. More effective management and conservation measures need to be implemented. Mono Lake provides an example of what can be achieved in the conservation of salt lakes. Its conservation was largely brought about by (1) the commitment of a non-governmental organization which recognized its non-economic values, (2) the freedom to express views, (3) a legal system which took account of non-economic values, and (4) a legislature which implemented judicial findings. The conservation of Mono Lake was difficult; the conservation of other salt lakes is likely to be even more difficult. Only international pressure from appropriate organizations will be effective for the conservation of many.W.D. William

Topics: saline lakes; salinity; environmental threats; salinization; climate change; conservation
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Year: 2002
DOI identifier: 10.1017/S0376892902000103
OAI identifier: oai:digital.library.adelaide.edu.au:2440/12147

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