The Impact of Climate Change on Water Systems

From erratic rainfall patterns to the rise in sea levels, warnings from respected organizations emphasize the need to take action to secure a sustainable future for generations to come

By Carlos Roa

The effects of climate change on global water systems are evident, ranging from erratic rainfall patterns to the reduction of ice sheets, elevation of sea levels, and occurrences of floods and droughts.

Most of the consequences of climate change can be traced back to water, intensifying both water scarcity and water-related hazards like floods and droughts, as elevated temperatures disrupt precipitation patterns and the overall water cycle.

A Picture of the Situation

Among the challenges regarding this confluence of extreme situations, UN-Water mentions that only 0.5% of the water on Earth is useable and available freshwater, about two billion people worldwide don’t have access to safe drinking water, and sea-level rise is projected to extend salinization of groundwater, decreasing freshwater availability for humans and ecosystems in coastal areas.

Additionally, the same source states that “Water quality is also affected by climate change, as higher water temperatures and more frequent floods and droughts are projected to exacerbate many forms of water pollution.”

As a corollary, the World Bank alerts that “water scarcity affects more than 40% of the global population.” They point out that “water-related disasters account for 70% of all deaths linked to natural disasters.”

The Environmental Protection Agency reminds us that the impact of climate change on the water cycle differs from one region of the country to another. “Rising temperatures, drought, and reduced snowfall are putting more pressure on water supplies in the Southwest. In contrast, the Northeast and Southeast may experience more extreme storms and heavy rains, which can put aging water infrastructure (such as dams, sewers, and water treatment facilities) at risk.”

UN-Water also states that the concurrence of climate change, population growth, and increasing water scarcity will put pressure on the food supply, as most of the freshwater used, about 70% on average, is used for agriculture.

Taking Action Now

Although our water sources face diverse threats due to climate change, there are several actions we can take as individuals and communities to contribute to minimize the harm.

UN-Water mentions: 

  • Healthy aquatic ecosystems and improved water management can lower greenhouse gas emissions and provide protection against climate hazards.
  • Wetlands such as mangroves, seagrasses, marshes, and swamps are highly effective carbon sinks that absorb and store CO2, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Early warning systems for floods, droughts, and other water-related hazards provide a more than tenfold return on investment and can significantly reduce disaster risk: a 24-hour warning of a coming storm can cut the ensuing damage by 30 percent.
  • Climate-smart agriculture using drip irrigation and other means of using water more efficiently can help reduce demand on freshwater supplies.

Also, EPA shares effective actions:

  • Build sustainable water infrastructure. Communities can maintain and renew aging water systems with planning tools, financing help, best practices, and new technologies.
  • Use water wisely. People can reduce water use in their homes and yards by repairing leaks, choosing WaterSense-labeled products, planting native or drought-resistant vegetation, and many other actions.
  • Learn about local water quality. Use EPA’s How’s My Waterway tool to find out the condition of water bodies in your area.

But the first and foremost goal we all must keep in mind is the urgent commitment, as humankind, to reduce the greenhouse gases causing climate change. Only immediate action, combined with this long-term aim, will create a sustainable future for generations to come.

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