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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.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
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 Julia Conley
Climate campaigners on Friday expressed hope that policymakers who are stalling on taking decisive climate action would reconsider their stance in light of new warnings from an unlikely source: two economists at J.P. Morgan Chase.
Tensions are continuing to rise in Canada over a controversial pipeline project as protesters enter their 12th day blockading railways, demonstrating on streets and highways, and paralyzing the nation's rail system
Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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