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No longer something we can take for granted

On the heels of last week’s musing about the inevitable demise of our species, I’ll shorten the timeline on a growing crisis that does not bode well for humanity. Unlike the astronomically large time period, the looming global water shortages are playing out right now.
As columnist Gwynne Dyer has pointed out in recent columns – and in his book Climate Wars, drawing on a variety of experts – we could be in for a grim future precipitated by water shortages, leading to the collapse of the food system, mass migration of refugees and, eventually, territorial wars.

Chances are few of us thought of that today as we took showers, flushed toilets and run washing machines. Water is plentiful: we just turn on the taps, and out it comes.

Of course, given the ever-escalating cost of that water, we are more mindful of it. The higher cost is supposed to encourage us to conserve, the best way to make the most of our dwindling water supply. I say dwindling, but that’s not really the case. The planet is home to plenty of water, we’re just using it far more quickly than nature can replenish it in the quantities and locations we need.

A glance at photos of the Earth taken from space makes the idea of a water shortage seem absurd.

The globe is mostly water. However, 97 per cent of that is salt water. Of the remaining three per cent that is fresh water – the kind we need to drink and to grow food – more than two-thirds is contained in glaciers and icecaps. About 30 per cent is groundwater – the kind we depend on here in Waterloo Region – and only 0.3 per cent in available as surface water (lakes and rivers, for instance).

In many of the areas currently experiencing water shortages – northern Africa comes to mind – the problem is access to freshwater supplies, which at times has more to do with politics and/or economics than it does Mother Nature.

Still, with a growing number of people drawing on freshwater supplies, it’s no surprise we’re running into trouble. That goes double when, as is the case in much of the developing world, the bulk of the growth comes in regions already experiencing shortages. Population shifts on this continent – growth in water-starved California and the U.S. southwest – also contribute to the problem.

Donald Burn, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Waterloo, sees changes to the planet’s climate as likely to exacerbate the current divide between the way we choose to live and what the planet can provide.

“It’s fundamentally important to our society that we have the water we need where we want it,” he says, noting places such as Waterloo Region face shortages as population outstrips the ability of the local environment to recharge supplies.

He sees the need for a Great Lakes pipeline in the not-too-distant future, as our groundwater supplies are almost maxed out.

“We think of it as always being there, but that’s not the case,” says Burn of the groundwater that provides us with most of our drinking water, some 180 million litres of which is processed by the region each day.

Fact is, we do take drinking water for granted. We are lucky in this area, as we have options for mitigating some of the negative impacts of growth. And we’re also less prone to the extremes in weather – floods, droughts, unusual snowfalls – currently on display around the globe.

Such extremes are consistent with climate-change modelling, says Burn.

“There is always variability in local weather, but this is something beyond the normal variability.”

As noted in this week’s edition, we’re experiencing some wintry weather this season, with more to come. The snow, in fact, should be helpful … though not particularly welcomed if, like me, you’re not a fan of winter. While colder and snowier than the norm, the weather has been nothing like the extremes elsewhere. The climate-induced changes aren’t likely to have the same catastrophic consequences here.

“Every region is vulnerable to the extremes. The more vulnerable you are currently, the more vulnerable you will be in the future,” he says, whose own research notes Canada could see more floods and droughts, with impacts that extend into this region. “We’ll have to be prepared for these sorts of disasters.”

While we’re still a long way from the worst-case scenarios, we’ll have to move now to mitigate the impacts, or bear the full and much larger costs later when we’re in an emergency situation, he suggests.

That means taking steps to combat climate change, and precautions in those places likely to be hardest hit – rising water levels, droughts and floods will wreak havoc where they occur, no matter what that nation’s government does or does not believe about climate change.

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