Flooding of the Rhine in Bonn, Germany. Matthew, Unsplash

Water, water everywhere – but not where it’s needed

As droughts and floods multiply, what would a sustainable water future look like?

Too much, not enough, or in the wrong place: water is making headlines, and not just in the weather report, but for all the wrong reasons.

A third of Pakistan under water. Hundreds dead in floods in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. Severe and prolonged droughts in Europe, Australia, the U.S., South America and the Horn of Africa.

In fact, three-quarters of all natural disasters in the last 20 years have been water-related. Last year, extreme weather events, exacerbated by climate change, displaced more than 32 million people.

Water is the way most people experience climate change, researchers say – and it’s only going to get worse.

Even a single degree Celsius of temperature rise puts a tremendous amount of water into the air, says Lis Mullin Bernhardt, program officer for fresh water at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

“Warmer temperatures are leading to increased evaporation, and warmer air holds a lot more water vapor,” she says, “both of which mean less moisture in the soil. So, you see the drying of soils coming from temperature and heat, and also from deforestation, where the soil is exposed. That added moisture in the air coming down causes pretty serious precipitation and storms.”

Damage from Hurricane Ian
Damage caused by Hurricane Ian in the U.S. state of Florida, September 2022. Florida Fish and Wildlife, Flickr

Water damage to the global economy

A recent report from global professional services firm GHD has put a hefty price tag on the future impacts of water risk to economies: USD 5.6 trillion in gross domestic product loss by 2050, and that’s just for the seven countries that will be taking the biggest hits (the United States, China, Australia, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, Canada and the United Arab Emirates).

“We know water is important to communities and to our economy,” says Don Holland, GHD’s business group leader for integrated water management, “but never had an idea of what the water risk is for the economy.”

The company used data from insurance companies and 19 scientific studies to build an econometric model that looks at five different sectors: agriculture, banking and insurance, energy and utilities, consumer goods, and manufacturing and distribution – this latter category the one that will suffer the most.

Within those seven countries, the U.S. stands to sustain the lion’s share of costs – USD 3.7 trillion – from drought, flooding, and especially storms, which will account for more than half of all losses. In fact, the country’s southwest alone is projected to be even more severely impacted than all of China, the next country on the list.

Food production and agriculture, which currently drain as much as 90 percent of the global groundwater supply, is already being impacted by drought all over the world. Along with falling aquifer levels, pollution and saltwater intrusion only adds to the problem, according to UNEP. The UN’s Food and Agriculture organization (FAO) estimates that 60 percent of all irrigated cropland is water-stressed, raising the specter of future food shortages.

What’s more, droughts can leave lasting damage to soil, says Mullin Bernhardt. For instance, dry conditions have persisted in the southwestern U.S. for the past 20 years, meaning they can no longer be called a drought, but extreme aridification.

“When the earth is that dry,” she says, “its ability to soak in rain is diminished. It can’t be absorbed and is just running off and flooding and eroding the soil.”

“That’s what happens with climate change and why you’re seeing it in our water cycle. And because the entire water cycle in the world is interconnected, every place in the world is feeling it. Places that have never seen droughts and floods are now seeing them, and countries that have a history of these events are seeing them at unusual times and levels of severity.”

Cape Town’s struggles with water scarcity have been well documented. Zoë Reeve, Unsplash

Will cities run dry?

Urban areas are also facing increasing water scarcity thanks to a fateful combination of unsustainable use and drought. While at least 80 cities around the world have already experienced shortages over the past two decades, more than 1 billion city dwellers are projected to experience water shortages in the near future, according to a paper published recently in Nature Sustainability.

Climate change and population growth play a role in urban water crises, but what is really aggravating the problem is economic inequality, says Elisa Savelli, research fellow at Uppsala University and lead author of the paper.

The scientists focused on the South African city of Cape Town as it approached ‘day zero,’ the day when the city’s six large dams would run dry. Various management measures were put into place, including a hike in tariffs, a ban on non-essential use, and the installation of a new water pressure system.

Savelli’s research, however, found a highly skewed picture of water use. Cape Town’s wealthiest residents, making up less than 15 percent of the city’s population, were using about 50 times more water per household than the poorest 61 percent of Capetonians.

What’s more, affluent households were able to bypass the restrictions on public use by purchasing water or drilling private boreholes on their properties. These private wells not only allowed people to keep watering lawns and filling swimming pools but tapped into the same sources that supplied the public system.

“The problem with these rich households is not just that they consume too much,” says Savelli, “but that they have access to multiple water sources. They tap directly into a common pool resource that is important for the survival of the system – because the groundwater is connected to everything else – and for the future water use of the entire population.”

The researchers also created model that simulated the potential effects of different water consumption scenarios, such as population growth and a 2-degree-Celsius temperature increase.

“The most unsustainable scenario is the one that foresees an increase of inequality and unsustainable levels of water consumption among the elite and upper middle income groups,” the authors write.

Managers of urban water systems need to consider social inequalities, says Savelli, “and we show how much and to what extent they matter.” A blanket policy that only considers average consumption will not address the root cause of overconsumption, she says, and the privatization of public water sources needs to be controlled.

Green infrastructure is a crucial solution to urban water crises, says Holland. “There’s a huge opportunity here to make our cities more liveable. Having low-impact developments, having a greener city with more shade trees – there are a lot of co-benefits,” he emphasizes.

“Right now, we treat water as a commodity, as something to control and portion out. But despite our best efforts, we still have flooding, we’re still having storms hit us, and what we really need to do is focus on resilience and how to co-exist with water, versus trying to control it.

“We need to start asking water what it wants, because as it’s been said before, water always wins.”




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