The world’s freshwater supply is shrinking by nearly half an inch a year, the World Meteorological Organization warned in a report released this week. By 2050, around 5 billion people will have insufficient access to water at least one month a year, according to the report.
Overall, global warming is intensifying the planet’s water cycle, with a 134 percent increase in flood-related disasters since 2000, while the number and duration of droughts have increased by 29 percent over the past year. during the same period. Most of the deaths and economic losses from floods occur in Asia, while Africa is hit hardest by drought.
“Water drains from the tub in some places, while it overflows in others,” said Maxx Dilley, Director of the WMO Climate Program. “We have known this for a long time. When scientists began to understand what climate change was going to mean, an acceleration in the hydrological cycle was one of the things considered likely. ”
Researchers see changes in the hydrologic cycle in its impacts as well as in the data, Dilley said.
“And it’s not just the climate,” he said. “Society plays a major role, along with population growth and development. At some point, these factors are really going to come together in a really damaging way. This summer’s extremes were early warnings.
In the United States, there have been 64 floods and droughts since 1980, which have cost more than $ 427 billion, or 21.5% of the total cost of the country’s climate-related disasters compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Globally, WMO estimates that between 1970 and 2019, there were 11,072 weather, water and other climatic disasters, causing 2.06 million deaths and 3,600 billions of dollars in economic losses. About 70 percent of deaths associated with climatic hazards have occurred in the least developed countries of the world.
Many countries lagging behind
The report also revealed that many countries are unprepared to deal with the surge in water-related extremes, especially developing regions of the South.
“There is a very, very long history of attempts to improve early warning systems for impacts on agriculture and food security, but the water sector is underserved,” said Dilley. “There are a series of water-related variables, such as groundwater and river flow, that are not observed. “
Global warming is intensifying water extremes in several ways. A warmer atmosphere contains more moisture, which can fuel more intense precipitation, including tropical storms. For example, recent research shows that warming will intensify rains from humid air currents called atmospheric rivers, which already cause most of the flood damage in the western United States.
Other studies show how changes in regional ocean currents and winds can also intensify extremes. In 2016, researchers found that border currents, parallel to the coast of several continents, carry 20% more energy than 50 years ago and are fueling an increase in destructive flooding in some regions, including Asia. , which was highlighted as one of the most at risk areas in the new WMO report.
Last year alone, extreme rainfall caused massive flooding in Japan, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan and India, WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said on Tuesday during the publication. of the report.
“Millions of people have been displaced and hundreds have been killed,” he said. “But it is not only in the developing world that the floods have caused major disruptions. Catastrophic floods in Europe have left hundreds of people dead and extensive damage. “
At the same time, he added, water scarcity is also a major concern, especially in Africa, where more than 2 billion people live in countries with water scarcity and do not have access to it. drinking water and sanitation.
“More than 60 percent of (WMO) members lack basic water information and management tools, including early warning systems to deal with the increase in water-related disasters. water, ”he added. “We need to realize the looming water crisis. “
WMO report found that by 2020 3.6 billion people lacked safely managed sanitation services, such as human waste disposal, and 2.3 billion lacked basic hygiene services , such as toilets in hospitals, factories and kitchens. He also found that in more than 60 percent of the 193 member countries, the agencies responsible for providing basic water information did not have the resources to do this job adequately.
In 40 of the 101 countries assessed by WMO, basic hydrological variables such as stream flows and groundwater were not properly monitored, and in 67 of them the data was not sufficiently shared with the agencies that needed it. A third of countries lacked river flood forecasts and warnings, while more than half had inadequate drought forecasts and early warnings or had none at all.
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The main obstacles to the effective collection, distribution and use of water and climate information include limited government funding and budgets, and a lack of institutional expertise and staff to address water and climate issues. water, said Joseph Intsiful, climate and early warning systems specialist with Green Climate. Fund, which is stepping up its efforts to develop early warning systems to reduce the impacts of climate extremes.
Progress is being made in other areas, said Mikko Ollikainen, with the Adaptation Fund, a global financial partnership that has committed $ 850 million since 2010 to help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change. His recent water-related projects include strengthening early warning systems for floods and droughts in the Georgian nation, restoring traditional irrigation canals in Morocco, and diversifying agriculture in Chile to make l ‘food supply more resistant to water extremes, he said.
The WMO report calls for more investment in integrated water management to better manage water stress, especially in underdeveloped island countries and least developed countries of the world. The most immediate short-term needs he identified include early warning systems for droughts and floods, as well as baseline data collection for important water information.
Dilley said the urgency of the WMO warning is reinforced by the recent scientific report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which also identified an increase in extremes in the water cycle as one of the biggest threats from global warming.
“There is really almost like a sense of panic that there really isn’t much time left,” he said. “The recent report that came out kind of set that tone. These are scientific reports. They are not emotional, but you can see the sense of urgency on almost every page. The feeling is that it is time to do something. It’s now or never.”
But the slow onset of some climate impacts remains a stumbling block, he acknowledged, as many people don’t feel the impacts until it’s too late to stop them.
“This is what is insidious about climate change,” he said. “The antidote is the dissemination of this scientific information as a basis for action. If you get to the point where there is no more water, it is too late. Actions must happen decades before reaching this point.