Most residents of the western world take clean, fresh water for granted. But in other parts of the world, more than 2 billion people already have difficulty accessing fresh water. It’s not surprising that global scarcity of fresh water impacts food availability, influences economies, and plays a critical role in the health of our environment.
Water is the most essential substance on Earth. Without it, life wouldn’t exist. We use it for everything — from drinking and bathing to farming and power. Yet as the planet warms, we see an increase in natural disasters, severe weather, flood, and drought affecting the planet’s capacity to sustain clean fresh water.
Snow and ice
Take our tap water, for example. In a warming world, there’s less snow which means less snowpack, reducing the amount of drinking water downstream. And with mountain glaciers melting, the water supply for billions is at risk. For example, a 15,000-foot glacier that provides drinking water for much of Asia has lost 60% of its mass since 1982.
The changing climate is also melting ice sheets, leading to sea level rise and coastal flooding. Greenland’s ice sheet is now melting at its fastest rate in 350 years, and in the past 20 years alone, it has melted up to five times faster than pre-industrial rates. Those rising seas also drive saltwater into our freshwater aquifers, affecting our clean water supply.
More extreme weather and rain
In the past 50 years, much of the US has seen increases in prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, severe floods and droughts, according to the National Climate Assessment. Climate change is also causing more extreme rain events, such as Hurricane Harvey which took at least 68 lives and caused $125 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center.
A warmer atmosphere can hold more water, and that means more disastrous downpours. The amount of rain during heavy precipitation events since the early 1990s has been significantly higher than normal. This also leads to an increase in flooding, especially in the Northeast and Midwest where the most significant increases in heavy rain have occurred. Extreme rainfall can also cause sewer systems to overflow, sending untreated sewage into our drinking water supplies.
Additionally, all that rain can wash pesticides and fertilizer from farms into lakes, rivers, and streams — fueling harmful algal blooms. Warmer water temperatures lead to the growth of toxic blue-green algae. Last year’s algal bloom off the Florida coast, for instance, fouled the beaches, killed thousands of fish, and hurt tourism and local economies.
Two billion people without ready access to fresh water is just the beginning. In just five years, two-thirds of the world’s population — more than 5 billion people — could be living in areas where water access is threatened or non-existent. Many of those affected already live lives of poverty and hardship.
For them, an increase in fresh water scarcity could be catastrophic. That’s why The Weather Channel has temporarily changed its name to The Water Channel and launched the "Forecast: Change" initiative to highlight the global issue of fresh water scarcity. You can help make a difference in a few easy ways:
- Check your weather. Unlock clean water. Every time you check your forecast on The Weather Channel, you unlock clean water for people in need, over 100 million liters worth in 2019.
- Do your part. Participate in monthly conservation challenges to reduce your water footprint.
- Learn more about clean water scarcity and how you can help at thewaterchannel.org.
Everyone deserves access to fresh water, yet it’s at risk in a warming world. Visit TheWaterChannel.org to help take action and for more information.
Kait Parker is an atmospheric scientist and host of the Warming Signs podcast from The Weather Channel and weather.com, part of IBM.
- This is the next step for the cloud
- How sharing personal data can improve the consumer experience
- Share your opinion — become a BI Insider!