Floods, unabated, heavy rainfall, and pollution – water can be a cause of many catastrophes and natural disasters. Yet, lack of access to fresh water for everyday needs, including drinking, cooking, and for basic sanitation and hygiene, is also a global challenge, that nearly 2.2 billion people face everyday.
How is it that many parts of the world are dealing with extreme weather leading to overabundance of water while other parts continue to deal with droughts, scarcity and simply, lack of access to water?
This article intends to share a big picture perspective on how water is both a culprit as well as a victim.
Water as a Culprit
As climate change further warms up our planet, the buildup of greenhouse gases leads to warmer temperatures causing increased evaporation of water from oceans, lakes, rivers and soil. This increased level of water vapor in the atmosphere leads to heavier precipitation events. And then finally, whether the water falls down upon us as rain or snow depends on the temperature.
If winter temperatures remain below freezing the increased moisture in the air could mean heavier snowstorms.
Winter Storm Brings Heavy Snow to the Midwest, Disrupting Travel (Image credit: Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press (from The New York Times)
Increased water vapor in the air can also further increase warming. Water vapor is actually a greenhouse gas, which traps heat in the atmosphere and causes temperatures to rise. But unlike other greenhouse gases that can linger in the atmosphere for years, water vapor usually stays in the air for a few days before falling back to Earth as precipitation.
Image credit: Living Landscapes: Southeast Region
Further, we have all seen that when disaster strikes, it often manifests itself through floods, landslides, tsunamis, storms, heat waves, cold spells, droughts and waterborne disease outbreaks - all of which are becoming more frequent and more intense. The impacts and costs of these events are only aggravated by unplanned, unrestricted urbanization and degradation of the ecosystem.
Water as a Victim
Higher temperatures and more extreme, less predictable, weather conditions are already affecting rainfall, snowmelt, river flows and groundwater, and deteriorating water quality. Low-income communities, who are already the most vulnerable to any threats from climate change are also the worst affected due to inadequate water supply.
This lack of access not only impacts human health and food security but has already shown to trigger refugee crises and political instability in many countries.
High levels of contamination leave those living in slums with extreme water scarcity. (Image credit: The threat of water scarcity looms large)
At the same time, water quality is of primary concern in many parts of the world with water polluted as a result of human activities. Unsafe water kills more people each year than war and all other forms of violence combined.
Known as a “universal solvent,” water dissolves more substances than any other liquid on earth. It’s also why water is so easily polluted. Toxic substances from farms, towns, and factories readily dissolve into and mix with it, causing water pollution.
And no conversation of water pollution can be complete without remembering the widespread ocean pollution due to plastics.Enough has been written and talked on this subject so we will refrain from saying anything more.
Water as an Opportunity
Water plays a very important role in how the world tackles climate change. An integrated view on water, the biosphere and environmental flows is essential to devise sustainable agricultural and economic systems that will allow us to decelerate climate change, protect us from extremes and to adapt to the unavoidable at the same time.
Uncertainty about the future cannot be an excuse for inaction today; if the world is to limit global temperature increases to well below 2°C, we must act immediately.
Securing water for communities, economies, and ecosystems is critical for poverty reduction, green energy transformation, and creating a buffer from natural disasters. Climate policy must address water across all sectors of the economy and the environment to ensure a climate-resilient and sustainable future for all.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) blog:
“We need to accelerate the move to a 21st century view – where we see water as a finite and valuable asset, as a major economic driver, as essential to urban revitalization, as a centerpiece for innovative technology, and as a key focus of our efforts to build resilience.
This shift presents tremendous opportunities – to revitalize communities, to grow businesses and jobs, to improve public health. But to achieve it, we must make water a top national priority – and we need to be bold and revolutionary. We need to drive innovation across all dimensions of the water sector: in technology, finance, management, and regulation.”