Do You Know Our Greatest Global Challenge?

29 Nov

Did you think of energy? Climate change? Food security? Human health? Increasing conflict? What comes to mind for me is related to all five: The water crisis. And unfortunately, we’re not ready.

Jay Famiglietti at the University of California, Irving directs the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling, which focuses on water. After 15 years of using NASA satellites to track water availability around the world, he’s convinced that we are – to use his own words – “on many levels, completely and totally hosed.”

Monthly (A) global freshwater discharge, (B) global-ocean evaporation, and (C) global-ocean precipitation. Trends for the periods of 199412–200611 (broken red line), 199412– 199906 (solid blue line), and 199907–200611 (solid blue line). From Syed et al., (2010), PNAS

It’s not news that groundwater has been depleted, but Famiglietti’s team has observed the tremendous scale of the problem. Groundwater is being “ripped from beneath every continent except Antarctica (which has its own problems) at a frenzied pace.” And for the first time, they were also able to estimate that this global depletion is occurring at an alarming rate.

But that’s not the whole story. The water cycle itself is changing.  As temperatures rise around the world, evaporation and precipitation are increasing because the atmosphere holds more water.

The result: rainfall will be delivered in more energetic bursts, that is, in more severe storms and floods; while drought will become more prolonged and intense, driven by more powerful drying from strengthening evaporation.  In short, we will, and may already, be experiencing more extreme extremes.

A new post on Famiglietti’s excellent new blog Water 50/50 describes what’s in store and unfortunately, it’s grim. Spatial changes in rainfall will make wet regions wetter and dry regions ever more parched. There will be increased incidence of flooding and drought. And we’ll be burdened by agricultural challenges to feed the burgeoning human population and quench growing thirst – particularly in developing nations. These are conditions that lead to increasing human conflict and, in turn, we can expect water wars.

It’s a very desperate situation, but as Famiglietti writes, there’s still a chance to prepare:

The only way that will ever happen is if we begin, now, to implement the technological, civil, policy and legal infrastructure required to peaceably and efficiently share and trade water across political boundaries.

This is a must-read post on a very important new blog. So go take a look and add Water 50/50 to your bookmarks.

7 Responses to “Do You Know Our Greatest Global Challenge?”

  1. Frank Gullo November 29, 2011 at 10:07 pm #

    Nice post. Also worth noting is Charles Fishman’s The Big Thirst (2011, Free Press), which explores our casual yet essential relationship with water and why the era of easy water is over.

  2. Tom November 30, 2011 at 12:40 am #

    This is a topic that is taken very seriously in Chicago. We’re doing all we can to keep Lake Michigan clean and full of water.

  3. Frank Gullo November 30, 2011 at 9:31 am #

    Coincidentally, there was also a story on the Buffalo NPR affiliate (WBFO) today about the global water crisis and protecting the Great Lakes.

    Protecting the Great Lakes

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