Water Stress Could Affect Half the World's Population in Just 5 Years
World Water Week kicked off this week in the shadow of a frightening reality that nearly one-fourth of the world's population is living under extreme water stress and in just five years, half the world's population will live in water-stressed regions, according to the Weather Channel. The dire scenarios circle the globe, from New Mexico to New Delhi.
The misuse of groundwater in Indonesia is so grave that the capital city, Jakarta, is sinking, prompting the president there to move the seat of government to Borneo, as CNN reported.
In light of the pressing need to replenish the world's clean water systems, the 29th annual World Water Week started in Stockholm with the theme Water for Society: Including all. The event, which aims to draw the world's attention to water-related challenges around the world, is hosted by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and supported by the United Nations water programs. UN-Water publishes the annual World Water Development Report.
"Many in our societies are not aware of the vital role that water plays in realizing prosperity, eradicating poverty and tackling the climate crisis," said Torgny Holmgreen, SIWI's executive director in a press release. "Together, we can change that perception and unlock the potential of water-related solutions."
The meeting rooms teem with ideas and solutions as more than 260 sessions will be held over the six days of the conference, which includes more than 3,000 representatives from 100 countries, as the Weather Channel reported.
"We have the methods and the technology, but need the momentum to make them work," said Dr. Jackie King, Stockholm Water Prize Laureate 2019, according to a press release.
One area of focus this week is how large corporations consume water and what they can do to reduce their excess usage. The textile industry took the spotlight on the opening day, acknowledging outsized water use in its manufacturing. Cotton, for example, is a thirsty crop, and, it takes nearly 1,000 gallons of water to make just one pair of jeans, according to Lisa Hook, who works on sustainability for Gap Inc., as Reuters reported. She also acknowledged that her industry adds about 20 percent of the pollution in fresh water sources, especially in developing countries where labor is cheap and pollution standards are lax.
"Gap Inc. sees water as a human right," said Hook to Reuters. "We can't do business where there is no water."
Coca-Cola is turning to new technologies that clean bottles with air rather than water. It is harvesting rainwater at its plants. It's also looking to create new wetlands and to put back into nature an equal amount of water as it uses by next year, according to Reuters.
"Water is the absolute heart of our business. If we don't have water, we don't have a business — full stop," said Liz Lowe, the company's British sustainability manager, to Reuters.
PepsiCo has also taken the mantle of providing clean water to people in need. It has already delivered clean drinking water to more than 20 million people and teamed up with the Safe Water Network, Water.org, China Women's Development Foundation and the 2030 Water Resources Group of the World Bank, according to Forbes.
PepsiCo has also partnered with the Inter-American Development Bank to help support infrastructure projects in Latin America where nearly 230 million people do not have access to clean drinking water, as Forbes reported.
"At PepsiCo, we believe that access to safe water is a fundamental right — no matter where you live, no one should be left behind," said Roberta Barbieri who works in sustainability at PepsiCo, according to Forbes.
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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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