How long can you go without water? You could probably survive a few weeks without water for cooking. If you stopped washing, the threat to your life might only come from people who can’t stand the smell. But most people won’t live for more than three days without water to drink. It makes sense: our bodies are about 65 percent water.
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According to the United Nations, about 750 million people lack access to safe water—that’s one in nine! One child dies every minute from a water-related disease and 1.2 billion people, a fifth of the global population, live in areas where water is scarce. And it’s not just in other countries. As of January, at least 1,838 drinking water advisories were in effect in Canada, including 169 in 126 First Nations communities—some ongoing for years.
With Canada’s abundant glaciers, lakes, rivers and streams, we often take water for granted. (In my home province, we give it away to large corporations that bottle and sell it back to us at exorbitant prices!) We shouldn’t be so complacent. People in California thought they had enough water to fill swimming pools, water gardens and yards, support a fertile agricultural industry and shoot massive volumes into the ground to fracture shale deposits to release the oil they contain. Now, with the state in its fourth year of severe drought, regulators are considering emergency legislation and have imposed restrictions to deal with shortages.
Droughts in California and elsewhere are serious warnings about what we could face in Canada and around the world as growing human populations and industry require ever more water, and as climate change wreaks havoc on the Earth’s hydrologic cycle, causing drought in some areas and flooding in others.
According to a UN report, as water supplies dwindle, demand from manufacturing, thermal electricity generation and domestic uses will increase 55 per cent by 2050. The report, “Water for a Sustainable World,” says that unless we find better ways to manage water, the world could face a 40 percent shortfall by 2030. About 20 percent of the world’s aquifers are already overexploited.
Water shortages and unsafe water lead to many problems, including food scarcity and crop failure, increased poverty and disease, ecosystem collapse, problems for industry and increasing conflicts over dwindling supplies.
As individuals, we should do everything possible to conserve water, but avoiding massive shortages of clean water will take concerted action at all levels of society. The UN report concludes: “The global water crisis is one of governance, much more than of resource availability, and this is where the bulk of the action is required in order to achieve a water secure world.”
Water conservation is the best way to ensure we have enough to go around. Recycling wastewater and reserving clean water for drinking, moving away from water-intensive agricultural practices, reducing water pollution and avoiding industrial activities that use excessive amounts of water are also important. The report states that the growing demand for meat, large homes, motor vehicles, appliances and other energy-consuming devices “involves increased water consumption for both production and use.” And while population is a factor, the report shows the increase in water demand is double the rate of population growth.
At the policy level, better supply and sanitation infrastructure and improved management are essential. Protecting natural assets such as forests and wetlands that purify and store water and reduce flooding will help, especially in light of expected increases in natural disasters as the world continues to warm. Of course, doing all we can to reduce climate change and its consequences is also crucial.
The report also notes the world’s current obsession with economic growth has “come at a significant social and environmental cost,” including greater demands on water resources.
Getting a handle on water management and conservation concerns us all. It’s also about social justice, as the poor feel the brunt of negative impacts from water pollution and shortages.
As the UN report points out, “It is now universally accepted that water is an essential primary natural resource upon which nearly all social and economic activities and ecosystem functions depend.” Water makes life possible. We must never take it for granted.
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By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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