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Water Security in a Changing Climate

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Adanna C. Kalejaye
March 25, 2024

Water is life transcends the fact that water is a fundamental human right—it goes to the root of existence because without water, life cannot exist. Although about 70 percent of the earth is covered in water, only about 3 percent of it is fresh water out of which only 1.2 percent is accessible for drinking. The rest is locked in glaciers, ice caps and permafrost or buried deep in the ground. Despite its importance to our existence, water is not equally accessible as one in 10 people struggle to obtain it. With rapid global population growth comes corresponding growth in the demand for water. The Organization for Economic Corporation and Development (OECD) projects that by 2050, water demand will increase by 55 percent with the demand from domestic use increasing by 130 percent, manufacturing industries by 400 percent and power generation by 140 percent. Though, the availability of portable water is of utmost global concern as 26 percent of the global population lacks access to safe drinking water and by 2050, the global water scarcity is estimated to affect approximately 2.4 billion people. We cannot ignore the national gravity, in the United States: an estimated 2.2 million people do not have running water and basic indoor plumbing, while over 44 million people have inadequate water systems. Also, the water scarcity experienced is heightened in underserved communities with people of color, immigrants and low-income earners being disproportionately impacted.

Though water scarcity is often linked to inadequate and inappropriate water governance, climate change is disrupting the earth’s water cycle and exacerbating water scarcity by disrupting weather patterns and causing extreme natural disasters. Nine out of ten climate disasters are water related, the UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme in its 2020 report noted that out of all-natural disasters that occurred during 2001 and 2018, approximately 74 percent were water-related disasters. Water security, as defined by UN-water, goes beyond the availability of water as a physical resource, it encompasses the sustainable access to adequate quantity and an acceptable quality of water. Not only is the quantity of available water being affected by variation in climate, increasing water temperature is also impacting the biogeochemical balances in freshwater ecosystems leading to the deteriorating quality of water. Surface run-off from flooding is also causing a decline in the water quality as chemicals and nutrients from fertilizers, animal dung and human waste are washed into the great lakes.

The intensity of precipitation in the East and corresponding flooding, whilst not directly impacting the quantity of available water, is destroying the aging water infrastructure and water networks causing water loss. Across geographical zones, climate induced aridification means that the West is becoming hot and dry, impacting the availability of water in the region. The increasing impact of water scarcity on agricultural production, especially in the West, is also quite critical. Crops and livestock farming require a significant amount of water to produce, so a decline in food production is a consequential impact of water scarcity. The $50 billon agriculture industry in California, which accounted for approximately a third of the vegetables and two thirds of all fruits eaten in the United States in 2020 depends on irrigation. In 2015 agriculture was responsible for 80 percent of water consumed in California. The resulting effect of drought experienced, in addition to scarcity of surface water especially in arid areas of California and over drafting of groundwater supplies for irrigation, has led to depletion of groundwater.

Sampling investigations carried out by the U.S. geological surveys reveal that the groundwater supply which provides portable water to over half the population in the United States is being contaminated from seepage, frequent flooding events and the sheer volume of irrigation pumping for agriculture.

Whilst groundwater contamination is easily treated before being distributed to the public, this treatment doesn’t cover water accessed through private wells by a certain percentage of the population. Although conservation of water is considered an essential element of water management, the complexity of climate change is such that it requires a multifaceted approach.

The first step is designing a policy solution that incorporates water scarcity assessment and mapping to determine the current and future water situation, considering the variations in climate and preparing management plans that are specific to the region.

Brauman et al., (2016) notes that assessing and mapping out water scarcity helps in understanding vulnerability to water shortages as well as providing appropriate water management plans. To preserve and sustainably utilize the available water resources in light of climate change it is critical to adopt the water sensitive city framework which incorporates the innovation of the integrated urban water management with the planning concept of urban design. The framework entails managing the water cycle in a holistic and integrated manner rather than treating the different aspects of the water cycle separately. What this means is that the water system is managed in a way that not only meets the city’s water needs but also provides resilience and sustainability benefits.

Essentially, in enhancing and preserving waterways and reducing flooding risks, multifunctional infrastructures which are known as blue-green infrastructures (BGI), are designed to deliver ecosystem services needed to protect the city’s biodiversity.

AuthorAdanna Kalejaye is an internationally specialized lawyer in the fields of commercial law, environmental law, energy law and maritime law. She holds an LL.M (Master of Law) from Swansea University, Wales, UK. She is currently a doctoral candidate and research assistant in Public Policy at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston. She teaches courses on sustainable development and zero waste at the Osher Life-Long Learning Institute (OLLI) in UMass Boston. Her research interests are in environmental law and policies, climate change, sustainable development, renewable energy, waste management, policy building and analysis at both national and international level. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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