With a mere 2.5% of the world’s water being freshwater, and only 1% accessible for direct human use, water has always been scarce. And, through human activity, it is more scarce than ever before. But how is human activity jeopardising our access to this fundamentally life supporting resource? As the world observes World Water Day on March 22, 2023, we at Lynn Planet wish to reflect on humans’ existential dependence on healthy freshwater ecosystems.
What does the science say?
The climate change crisis is a nuanced affair. Shifting precipitation patterns, droughts, floods and extreme weather events may be headline news; however, they are simply the dramatic result of interconnected human activity. Most of which begins and ends with that which most of us learned in primary school: the water cycle.
But what have humans got to do with it? Human activity is the biggest producer of greenhouse gases on the planet. This is not only reserved to the burning of fossil fuels, but the cultivation of crops and livestock, the treatment of waste, the deforestation of rainforests and woodland and, of course, industry. All of which contribute to the heating of our oceans and atmosphere.
The issue – besides melting polar ice caps – is that warmer oceans lead to more evaporation. As is with the water cycle, clouds only turn to rain when air cools. However, warmer air holds more moisture (7% more for every 1°C rise). This is a potent combination.
Since 1950, the world has experienced far more rain on average, but also more intense droughts. According to this New York Times article, wet places are getting wetter and dry places are getting drier. In other words, where some nations will suffer from water scarcity, others will suffer equally from extreme flooding. Not only are we suffocating ourselves, we’re drowning ourselves, too.
The impact of our systemic failure.
Nowhere is our failure more apparent than in the US. Where the Western coast has been experiencing the most extreme megadrought in over 1200 years, the Eastern coast has been increasingly subjected to more intense downpours, flooding and hurricanes. The recent flooding in California speaks less to the end of the megadrought, and more to worsening extreme weather conditions.
The European continent is experiencing a similar shift. Northern Europe, for example, is witnessing increased rainfall, whilst the desertification of the Mediterranean region continues unabated. In fact, scientists reported that the 2022 summer drought in Europe was the worst on record in 500 years. Worser still: there are but little signs of improvement this winter.
This variability in long-term weather patterns is only going to worsen. The director of California’s Department for Water Resources was right when she said, “We are in the middle of a flood emergency and also in the middle of a drought emergency.” Where major parts of Asia are grappling with the onslaught of flooding, regions in Eastern Australia are facing severe drought leading to record-breaking wildfires.
Indeed, according to a report by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), it was weather, climate and water hazards that accounted for 50% of disasters and 45% of disaster-related deaths between 1970 – 2019. These deaths were mostly in developing countries. The same report also stated that droughts have caused economic losses worth $124 billion over the past two decades. These damages are mostly concentrated in poorer nations close to the equator. The area most affected is East Africa. The region itself is facing some of the worst drought conditions in over four decades, with 18m people facing starvation. To state the blindingly obvious: as the climate crisis worsens, this figure is going to rise.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, all agricultural, industrial and societal endeavours depend on our access to freshwater. According to a recent report by the World Economic Forum, around half our global GDP is dependent on nature. Whilst the study is no doubt convincing in its examination, we could also argue that, actually, no human endeavour is possible without access to nature (ie. 100% of GDP is dependent on water, land, biodiversity). However, the way in which we use nature needs to change.
Behaviour change is needed to both mitigate and adapt to our increasingly inhospitable planet. Mitigation involves individuals, households, and businesses taking responsibility for their water usage and adopting sustainable practices to reduce waste and energy output. Responsible water usage can include measures such as fixing leaky taps, using water-efficient appliances, and recycling water where possible. On the other hand, sustainable practices – which, as we know, have a knock-on effect towards the planet’s heat and, ergo, weather patterns – look like a big decrease in the burning of fossil fuels, the eating of meat and the buying of inessential items. All of which require a production change in industry and a behavioural change in individuals.
Behaviour change, however, will not make a difference if only a select band of individuals change. It is governments and organisations who play a crucial role here. Education campaigns are a must. But most importantly, policy changes and investment in both water and green infrastructure will result in the changes needed to mitigate climate change.
However, changing behaviours alone may not be enough to address the scale of the water crisis. We need to embrace a new reality, one in which water scarcity is a permanent feature of our environment. This means developing new technologies, such as desalination and water reuse. This means changing our approach to water management to ensure that we can sustainably meet the growing demand for water. And it means investing in research that can help us better understand the causes of droughts, enabling us to predict their occurrence.
The challenges we face are significant. Yet as we mark World Water Day, let us all take a moment to reflect on the importance of water in our lives and the urgent need to address the water crisis. By working together and adopting new behaviours and practices, we can create a more sustainable future for ourselves and the generations to come.
The need to change is urgent, but the barriers are high. Read how misinformation is stymying climate change collaboration here. Read how we can decarbonise our transport systems here. Or read how about some of the most popular – and damaging – climate conspiracy theories here.
Written by Lynn’s Director of Lynn Planet, Samar Khan.