Here in the United States, we have grown accustomed to thinking we will always have access to plentiful, clean water. We just assume we can turn on the tap and get all the water we need.
But in much of the world, water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning isn’t something to take for granted. Even in the U.S. and other developed countries, climate change and surging consumption could put our water security at risk. This is an issue we need to take seriously.
The World Meteorological Organization, an agency of the United Nations, warned in a recent report of a “looming water crisis” in which more frequent and extreme weather events will put a serious strain on the world’s water supplies and systems.
The numbers in the report are staggering. Two billion people live in “water-stressed countries” that can’t provide basic water and sanitation services. Some 3.6 billion people lacked reliable access to water at least one month in 2018; the figure could rise to 5 billion by 2050, more than half the world’s population. Over 11,000 weather- and climate-related disasters have taken place in the past 50 years, causing more than 2 million deaths and $3.6 trillion in damages. Since 2000, flood disasters have increased by 134%, with their heaviest impact in Asia; drought has increased by 29%, causing the most deaths and economic losses in Africa.
A lack of clean water prevents proper sanitation, and contaminated water causes cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid fever, and other deadly diseases. More than 800,000 people, including nearly 300,000 children under age 5, die each year from diarrhea that could be prevented by good hygiene, according to the World Health Organization.
It’s tempting for us to think these problems are confined to the developing world. But climate change doesn’t spare those of us who live in developed nations. In Europe, record flooding this year killed hundreds of people and shocked climate scientists. Increasingly powerful storms have ravaged U.S. coastal cities from New Orleans to New York. Drought in the American West brought another season of devastating wildfires and hamstrung the region’s agricultural and recreation industries. Western North America, in fact, was labeled a “global water crisis hotspot” in the World Meteorological Organization report.
Water shortages often lead to conflict, as nations and groups compete for scarce resources. Wars, flooding, and drought displace millions of people, creating new crises as nations struggle to accommodate refugees and migrants.
It’s also tempting to think it’s someone else’s job to fix water problems in other regions. But, as the world’s most powerful and wealthiest country, we Americans have an obligation to lead. As a major producer of greenhouse gases that cause climate change, we contributed to the problem.
What can we do? The problem isn’t simply a matter of too much or too little water; it’s that we’re not managing our resources effectively. Water management systems are “fragmented and inadequate,” in the words of the World Meteorological Organization. It calls for more investment in integrated water management systems to better conserve and manage water.
Too often we waste water and fail to develop the infrastructure to manage it.
As part of that effort, we must do more individually and as a nation to stem climate change, which is bringing the water to a head.
We can and must step up to the challenge. If we do not, disaster awaits.
By Lee H. Hamilton