Climate Change: Ecological Or Sociological Threat?

Climate change is a multifaceted issue, compounded by the effects of past and present resource management practices. The largest environmental risks stem from drought and soil degradation. Already, regions around the world are currently dealing with these challenges by adding water restrictions like Cape Town, South Africa or by shutting off water taps as they did in areas of Brazil.

Decreasing water quality is also a major concern as almost every river studied in Africa, Asia, and Latin America has seen increases in pollution. Runoffs of fertilizer and other agricultural chemicals are a main contributor to the increase of water-borne pathogens and algae blooms which “choke out” local ecosystems. A shocking 80% of industrial and municipal wastewater is released back into the water supply without treatment.

A recent UN report states that humans use approximately 4, 600 cubic km of water each year, with 70% of it going to agriculture, 20% to industry, and 10% to households. Demand for fresh water has increased six-fold over the previous 100 years and continues to increase by 1% annually. The report also suggests that a startling 5 billion people could be affected by freshwater shortages by 2050.

Climate change will make wet regions more wet and dry regions drier, adding to the potential for conflict arising from decreased access to water resources. Audrey Azoulay, the Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), insists that “Ensuring the sustainable use of the planet’s resources is vital for ensuring a long-term peace and prosperity.”

The Chair of UN Water, Gilbert Houngbo, supports this claim, saying that “In the face of accelerated consumption, increasing environmental degradation and multi-faceted impacts of climate change, we clearly need new ways [to] manage competing demands on our freshwater resources.”

Utah State University’s Jack Schmidt is undertaking research of this kind to examine if and how we can better manage changing precipitation and snow melt trends as they relate to the Colorado River watershed. When asked how climate change factors in to this work, Schmidt replied that the project is almost “entirely about climate change…” and more accurately, “how society adapts to a changing climate.”

For instance, full reservoirs release colder water into river ecosystems. As the reservoirs get lower they tend to release warmer water. Temperature changes caused by upstream water management techniques has potential to massively disrupt natural ecosystems downstream. Schmidt insists that a key strategy is to address water supply and river ecosystems as a holistic issue, taking in to account all of the above factors rather than focusing on water supply issues first and the spillover impacts afterwards.

The severity of potential water shortages is highlighted by the status of the Lake Mead Reservoir, which provides Arizona, Nevada and California with its water. The managing body, the Bureau of Reclamation, agreed not to place mandatory water cutbacks in 2019 but inferred there is an over 50% chance of cutbacks in 2020 if water levels continue to decrease and fall below 1075 feet in the reservoir. The bureau adds that it was only “by the skin of our teeth” that an official water shortage declaration was avoided this year.

The Colorado River Basin which supplies Lake Mead has seen a total decrease of around 7 % since this time last year. In California, scientists announce that recent decreases in moisture should not be considered as a drought but as a new weather trend due to climate change. This trend, referred to as “aridification,” should be considered the new norm in the area.