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Drinking water concerns heat up

We saw a little bit of rain this week after a largely dry – and very hot – July, a prelude to a warming trend that’s likely to make summer droughts more pronounced over time. In that regard, we’re getting a taste for what elsewhere is a much larger concern.

In places such as  California, for example, record droughts aren’t just unfortunate for residents: it’s the source of much of our produce, and prices are going to go up sooner or later given the decline in supply.

That’s not good – we’ve seen a fairly steady increase in food prices as it is – but importers will find other sources. And Canadian farmers may benefit by filling in some of the gaps, especially on the export side where the falling loonie is an advantage.

The bigger picture is more worrisome, however. The droughts that have seen California post some of its driest years on record are part of a trend in the already-water-starved U.S. Southwest. The continued lack of precipitation in recent years has seen groundwater levels fall even as more wells are drilled to meet demand.

The U.S. Geological Survey says about 20 per cent of the country’s groundwater pumping occurs in the Central Valley of California, which contributes to eight per cent of the nation’s agricultural output and 25 per cent of its food source. The decrease in available water imperils the food supply in a state where agriculture is worth some $50 billion. (The economic loss from the current drought, for instance, is estimated at as much as $5 billion.)

Food prices aside, the issue brings into focus longstanding concerns about freshwater supplies that are global in scale, reaching even these parts.

While Canada has an abundance of fresh water, some of the major sources have been dwindling. We’ve long taken our water for granted, wasting far more than we can afford to.

A report out this week from the World Resources Institute, Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, identifies some Canadian trouble spots in Saskatchewan and Alberta, but the more immediate perils lie in places such as Cape Town, South Africa and São Paolo, Brazil, where what’s known as “Day Zero” – the day when the taps run dry – is a looming threat. These cities are just a few examples of how water stress can impact people, livelihoods and businesses around the globe, says the WRI report.

The updated Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas finds that 17 countries, which are home to a quarter of the world’s population, face “extremely high” water stress. The tool ranks water stress, drought risk, and riverine flood risk across 189 countries.

In the 17 countries facing extremely high water stress, agriculture, industry, and municipalities are drinking up 80 per cent of available surface and groundwater in an average year. When demand rivals supply, even small dry shocks – which are set to increase due to climate change – can produce dire consequences, the institute notes.

“Water stress is the biggest crisis no one is talking about. Its consequences are in plain sight in the form of food insecurity, conflict and migration, and financial instability,” said Dr. Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute. “The newly updated aqueduct tools allow users to better see and understand water risks and make smart decisions to manage them. A new generation of solutions is emerging, but nowhere near fast enough. Failure to act will be massively expensive in human lives and livelihoods.”

For instance, in the Middle East and North Africa region, home to 12 of the 17 countries facing “extremely high” stress, experts have pinpointed water scarcity as a force that can exacerbate conflict and migration. India, ranked 13th on the list of “extremely highly” water stressed countries, has more than three times the population of the other 16 countries in this category combined.

Globally, there’s plenty of talk of – and preparations for – economic strife, political unrest and even battles over dwindling water resources. Many experts say 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 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, as the report notes – the problem is access to freshwater supplies, which at times as 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.

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.

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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