The global freshwater supply is decreasing by almost half an inch annually, the World Meteorological Organization warned in a report released this week. By 2050, around 5 billion people will have inadequate access to water for at least one month a year, the report said.
Overall, global warming is intensifying the planet’s water cycle, with flood disasters increasing by 134 percent since 2000, while the number and duration of droughts has increased by 29 percent over the same period. Most of the deaths and economic losses from flooding are in Asia, while Africa is hardest hit by the drought.
“The water runs out of the tub in some places while it overflows in others,” says Maxx Dilley, director of the WMO climate program. “We have known that for a long time. As scientists began to grasp the importance of climate change, an acceleration of the water cycle was seen as likely. ”
Researchers see the changes in the water cycle both in its effects and in the data, Dilley said.
“And it’s not just the climate,” he said. “Society plays a major role with population growth and development. At some point these factors are really going to come together in a way that is really harmful. The extremes of this summer were early warnings. “
The United States has had 64 flood and drought disasters since 1980 that have cost more than $ 427 billion, or 21.5 percent of the total cost of the country’s climate-related disasters, as compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Globally, the WMO estimates that between 1970 and 2019 there were 11,072 disasters related to weather, water and other climate-related hazards, resulting in 2.06 million deaths and $ 3.6 trillion in economic losses. About 70 percent of climate-related deaths occurred in the world’s least developed countries.
Many countries fall short
The report also found that many countries are unwilling to cope with the rise in water-related extremes, particularly developing regions in the Global South.
“There is a long, long history of attempts to improve early warning systems for agriculture and food security impacts, but the water sector is underserved,” said Dilley. “There are a number of water variables such as groundwater and river runoff that are not observed.”
Global warming amplifies water-related extremes in a number of ways. A warmer atmosphere contains more moisture, which can lead to more intense rainfall, including from tropical storms. For example, recent research shows that warming will intensify rain from humid air currents called atmospheric rivers, which are already causing most of the flood damage in the western United States.
Other studies show how changes in regional ocean currents and wind patterns can aggravate extremes. In 2016, researchers found that boundary currents that run parallel to the coast of several continents carry 20 percent more energy than they did 50 years ago and lead to an increase in destructive flooding in some regions, including Asia, which was highlighted as one of the areas Most at risk in the new WMO report.
Last year alone, extreme rainfall caused massive flooding in Japan, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan and India, WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas said on Tuesday when the report was released.
“Millions of people have been displaced and hundreds have been killed,” he said. “But floods have not only caused major disruptions in developing countries. Catastrophic floods in Europe left hundreds of deaths and widespread damage. “
At the same time, water shortage is a major problem, especially in Africa, where more than 2 billion people live in countries with water scarcity and have no access to clean drinking water and sanitation.
“More than 60 percent of (WMO) members lack basic water information and management tools, including early warning systems, to deal with the increase in water-related disasters,” he added. “We have to be aware of the impending water crisis.”
The WMO report found that in 2020, 3.6 billion people lacked safely managed sanitation such as human waste disposal and 2.3 billion basic hygiene services such as washrooms in hospitals, factories and kitchens. It also found that in more than 60 percent of the 193 member countries, the agencies tasked with providing basic water information did not have the resources to adequately perform this task.
In 40 of the 101 countries assessed by the WMO, basic hydrological variables such as streams and groundwater were not adequately monitored, and 67 of them were not adequately communicating the data to the authorities who needed it. A third of the countries lacked river flood forecasts and warnings, while more than half had inadequate drought forecasts and early warnings or did not have them at all.
Keep environmental journalism alive
ICN offers award-winning, localized climate reporting for free and advertising. We depend on donations from readers like you to keep going.
You will be forwarded to the ICN donation partner.
The main barriers to the effective collection, distribution and use of water and climate-related information are limited government funding and budgets and a lack of institutional expertise and staff to address water issues, said Joseph Intsiful, a specialist in climate and early warning systems at Green Climate Fund. which intensifies efforts to develop early warning systems to reduce the effects of climate extremes.
Some progress is being made in other areas, said Mikko Ollikainen, with the Adjustment Fund, a global finance partnership that has pledged $ 850 million since 2010 to help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change. Recent water-related projects include strengthening early warning systems for floods and droughts in Georgia, restoring traditional irrigation canals in Morocco, and diversifying agriculture in Chile to make food supplies more resilient to water extremes.
The WMO report calls for more investment in integrated water management to better manage water stress, especially in the underdeveloped island countries and the least developed countries in the world. Some of the most immediate short-term needs include early warning systems for droughts and floods and basic data collection for critical water information.
Dilley said the urgency of the WMO warning is reinforced by the latest scientific report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which also identified an increase in extremes of the water cycle as one of the greatest threats to global warming.
“There really is a sense of panic that really is not much time,” he said. “The most recent report that came out set that tone. These are scientific reports. They’re not emotional, but there was a sense of urgency on almost every page. The feeling is that it’s time to do something. It’s now or never. “
But the slow onset of some climate impacts remains a stumbling block, he admitted, because many people don’t feel the effects until it’s too late to stop them.
“That’s the insidious thing about climate change,” he said. “Providing this scientific information as a basis for action is the antidote. If there’s no more water, it’s too late. Actions have to take place decades before you get to that point. “