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NASA: 4 Billion People at Risk as 'Water Table Dropping All Over the World'
A new analysis reveals that global water scarcity is a far greater problem than previously thought, affecting 4 billion people—two-thirds of the world's population—and will be "one of the most difficult and important challenges of this century."
Previous analyses looked at water scarcity at an annual scale and had found that water scarcity affected between 1.7 and 3.1 billion people. The new study, published Friday in the journal Science Advances, assessed water scarcity on a monthly basis, more fully capturing the specific times of year when it could be an issue.
"Water scarcity has become a global problem affecting us all," study co-author Arjen Hoekstra, a professor of water management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, said.
The study found that almost half of the 4 billion affected by severe water scarcity for a month or more are in India and China. Millions of others affected live in Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan and Mexico.
The U.S. is far from immune to the problem, with 130 million people affected by water scarcity for at least one month a year, mostly in the states of Texas, California and Florida. And among the rivers the study notes that are fully or nearly depleted before reaching their end is the Colorado River in the West.
There are also half a billion people who face severe water scarcity year round, the analysis found.
"Direct victims of the overconsumption of water resources are the users themselves, who increasingly suffer from water shortages during droughts, resulting in reduced harvests and loss of income for farmers, threatening the livelihoods of whole communities. Businesses depending on water in their operations or supply chain also face increasing risks of water shortages. Other effects include biodiversity losses, low flows hampering navigation, land subsidence and salinization of soils and groundwater resources."
The study concludes that "[m]eeting humanity’s increasing demand for freshwater and protecting ecosystems at the same time ... will be one of the most difficult and important challenges of this century."
The new publication follows a pair of NASA studies led by researchers from the University of California Irvine that showed that the impacts of global warming along with growing demand has caused the world's water supply to drop to dangerous levels.
"The water table is dropping all over the world," Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said at the time. "There's not an infinite supply of water."
"We need to get our heads together on how we manage groundwater," Famiglietti added, "because we’re running out of it."
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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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A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?