10 ways that deforestration affects the water cycle

“If we tackle deforestation in the right way, the benefits will be far-reaching: greater food security, improved livelihoods for millions of small farmers and indigenous people, more prosperous rural economies, and above all, a more stable climate.”

– Paul Polman

Deforestation is harming our whole planet.

It is interrupting and damaging our ability to water crops and grow food, and it’s also heating our atmosphere and killing our world.

Here are the top 10 ways deforestation is impacting the life-giving water cycle, as well as what we can do to solve it.

How does deforestation affect the water cycle? The top 10 ways

1) It increases flooding and mudslides

When you cut down trees, you interrupt the root network and system for replenishing and protecting the land.

This eliminates many of the ways in which the ground is stabilized and can lead to large-scale flooding and mudslides.

Logging and deforestation has been going on for a long time now.

But with industrial technology in the last several hundred years, it’s started to really devastate and tear down large areas of key places like Indonesia, the Amazon and the Congo whose trees benefit us all.

As SubjectToClimate puts it:

“Every year, people cut and burn down billions of trees to make room for agriculture, infrastructure, and urbanization and to supply wood for construction, manufacturing, and fuel.

“As of 2015, the total number of trees in the world had dropped by approximately 46 percent since human civilization began!”

When it comes to deforestation, the problem is very serious, making whole areas of the world much more exposed to flooding, mudslides and major soil erosion.

2) It leads to drought and desertification

Deforestation causes drought and desertification. That’s because it cuts down the vital water-carrying role of the trees.

When left to their natural functions, trees absorb water and then transpire what they don’t need through their leaves, releasing it into the atmosphere.

Take the earth’s lungs – the Amazon rainforest – for example.

As Amazon Aid explains:

“The hydrological water cycle is one of the most important functions of the Amazon rainforest.

“The nearly 390 billion trees act as giant pumps, sucking water up through their deep roots and releasing it through their leaves, a process known as transpiration.

“One tree can lift approximately 100 gallons of water out of the ground and release it into the air each day!”

When you cut these trees down you interrupt their ability to do their job. As of this writing a catastrophic 19% of the Amazon rainforest has been cut down.

If it sinks below 80% capacity it could lose the ability to recycle water into the air.

“The Amazon is now at the tipping point, with approximately 81% of the forests intact. Without the hydrological cycle, it is predicted that the Amazon will turn into grasslands and in some cases desert.”

3) It leads to potential starvation

Without water, you don’t have food. Forests and trees act as water recycles that take water up and redistribute it into the clouds.

It then falls as rain around the world, watering crops and helping them grow. This process leads to a kind of aquatic stream in the sky, traveling the world and feeding our crops and fields.

“In their billions, they create giant rivers of water in the air – rivers that form clouds and create rainfall hundreds or even thousands of miles away,” explains Fred Pearce for the Yale School of the Environment.

“…Large-scale deforestation in any of the three major tropical forest zones of the world – Africa’s Congo basin, southeast Asia, and especially the Amazon – could disrupt the water cycle sufficiently to ‘pose a substantial risk to agriculture in key breadbaskets halfway round the world in parts of the U.S., India, and China.’”

In other words, if we don’t start looking seriously at deforestation and stopping it, we could end up with dead fields and no food growing from China and India all the way to the United States.

This problem is not going to magically go away just because industrial interests wish it would.

The potential for starvation in poor parts of the world and intense inflation and cost hikes in rich countries is enormous.

4) It dirties and pollutes water

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A lack of trees leads to chemicals seeping into the area, kills the fish and wildlife and eliminates the vital function performed by the root networks.

This harms drinking water quality and makes the water table full of all sorts of chemicals that run off into the water.

“Without trees’ root systems, the rain washes dirt and chemicals into nearby bodies of water, harming fish and makes clean drinking water hard to find,” notes Subject To Climate.

The big problem is that when you cut down trees you cut down guardians of the water system.

You let the sediment on the ground get washed around and stop the role of roots in securing the soil. As a result, the filtration function of the forests is gutted and they begin to lose their efficacy in keeping our water clean and fresh.

5) It allows more carbon dioxide to escape into the atmosphere

When you cut off the ability of the forest to transpire water you lead to droughts, create desserts, increase water pollution and starve farms of water.

But you also increase the amount of CO2 leaking into the atmosphere.

That’s because forests breathe in CO2 and take it out of our environment, acting as natural carbon capture devices.

When you take this away you harm our planet with rising temperatures.

As Kate Wheeling writes:

“Tropical rain forests provide ecosystem services well beyond their bounds.

“The Amazon, for example, acts as both a sink for carbon dioxide and a fountain of water vapor into the atmosphere that later falls as rain or snow, sometimes thousands of kilometers away.

“But human activities and climate change are major threats to these services.”

6) It makes water for cities and towns much more expensive

When you interrupt the natural filtration role of forests, you make water dirtier and harder to process.

This leads to it being harder for cities and water infrastructure to treat and process water for human consumption.

Nobody wants to turn on their tap and drink toxic water full of dangerous chemicals like lead (although that’s increasingly common across many countries).

Katie Lyons and Todd Gartner explored this thoroughly:

“Forests can positively impact the quantity, quality and filtration costs associated with a city’s water, sometimes even reducing the need for costly concrete and steel infrastructure.”

There are real-world examples that show how significant an impact forests can be. One of the best examples comes from New York, which realized how much they could save by caring about their neighboring forests and stopping deforestation.

“New York City, for example, conserved forest and natural landscapes in the Catskills to save on water filtration costs.

“The city invested $1.5 billion to protect more than 1 million acres of mostly forested watershed area, ultimately avoiding $6-8 billion on the cost of building a water filtration plant.”

7) It decreases rainfall worldwide

Because of their function in transpiration, trees take water and make it fall around the world.

If you deforest one part of the world you’re not only impacting that surrounding area, you are also hurting areas far away from there.

For example, deforestation is currently taking place in central Africa which is projected to lower rainfall in the Midwestern US by up to 35%.

Texas, meanwhile, is set to see rainfall go down by 25% due to massive deforestation of the Amazon.

Cut down a forest in one place and see the rain disappear in another place: it’s a recipe for disaster.

8) It makes farmers suffer worldwide

When rainfall goes down, crops go down.

And there’s not an unlimited blank check for governments to bail out the agriculture sector.

Plus, eventually running out of food isn’t just about markets and stability, it’s about literally not having enough food and nutrients for people.

As Rhett Butler writes:

“Moisture generated by rainforests travels around the world. Scientists have discovered that rainfall in America’s Midwest is affected by forests in the Congo.

“Meanwhile, moisture created in the Amazon ends up falling as rain as far away as Texas, and forests in Southeast Asia influence rain patterns in southeastern Europe and China.

“Distant rainforests are therefore important to farmers everywhere.”

9) It leads to increased risk of fires

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When you don’t have as much water and rain, the land quickly dries up.

Foliage shrivels and whole areas of former fertile soil become grasslands and barren deserts.

This leads to a much greater risk of fires as well, since when the forests are drying out the forests are much more liable to light on fire.

The result is a disaster for the whole ecological cycle, and also contributes to rising temperatures and climate change as fires pump more CO2 into the atmosphere.

10) Deforestation is only one of the problems impacting our water cycle

If deforestation was the only thing interrupting and harming our water cycle it could be fully focused on.

Unfortunately there are many other issues that are also harming the planet’s water.

The actions of industry and the human desire for power and endless growth are truly damaging to the water cycle.

As Esther Fleming notes:

“A number of human activities can impact on the water cycle: damming rivers for hydroelectricity, using water for farming, deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels.”

What can we do about deforestation?

Deforestation cannot be solved overnight.

We need to begin switching economies away from the kinds of obsessions and growth cycles that rely on wood products.

One thing you can do to fight deforestation is keep track of it with the Global Forest Water Watcher, a tool that lets you find areas where the water cycle is being threatened by deforestation.

It also helps you come up with ways to improve how you look after watersheds and manage water.

Picture of Paul Brian

Paul Brian

Paul R. Brian is a freelance journalist and writer who has reported from around the world, focusing on religion, culture and geopolitics. Follow him on www.twitter.com/paulrbrian and visit his website at www.paulrbrian.com

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