Warming and the World's Water Woes

Warming and the World's Water Woes

Lynne Peeples
Published: 11/14/2009

Dry river bed in India (
Anks via Flickr)

It's getting more and more difficult to ignore the warnings: Global warming is wielding its wrath upon the planet. But, for many, the concept is still vague—an abstract threat that lacks any personal urgency. If only climate change could speak to something most basic and important in people's daily lives. Oh wait, it does.

"I think when people start to experience a lack of water, they see that impact much more than that unknown threat of CO2 emissions," says Graham Sim, leader of the Global Water Reuse division of General Electric.

Access to clean, fresh water should be a fundamental human right for all people. As global populations and temperatures rise, however, the quality and quantity of potable water diminishes. Overextractions and pollution, along with changing patterns of precipitation and evaporation-enhancing heat, are quickly drying up many regions of the world. Melting Himalayan ice is forcing Indian engineers to devise artificial "glaciers" to keep water flowing into agriculture; a study published online last week warns of the possible connection between melting Arctic ice and drought in California. And in his home country of Australia, already the world's driest inhabited continent, Sims sees a trend of "significantly less rainfall year on year." Is there anything we can do to keep from running out of water?

One opportunity may come through the simple acknowledgment of this intimate connection between water resources and climate change. Advocates are pushing to inject water into the long-anticipated Copenhagen climate talks next month—an issue currently absent from the negotiating text, despite growing evidence that water may very well be the main medium through which climate change will impact societies and ecosystems.

Maude Barlow, senior advisor on water to the United Nations, is one of the leaders of this charge. "[Many people] see climate change as only relating to greenhouse gas emissions," says Barlow. "But our displacement of water from watersheds is actually creating desert, which creates more heat—part of the cause of climate change. If you don't put that into the equation, you'll never get the answer right." In other words, water could actually be enlisted in mitigation, not just as a consideration for adaptation.

Perhaps it's time to splash some cold water on Copenhagen—along with the world's remaining climate change skeptics.