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Building Back Better: Our Water Systems Against the Backdrop of Climate Change

Have you wondered how extreme heat, freezing, droughts and floods will impact our access to water in the future? The impact of recent freezing temperatures on water lines in Texas is a reminder that extreme weather coupled with aging infrastructure can lead to hardship and lack of access to drinking water. This example points to the need for strategic investments in our water systems to become resilient and more reliable both in advanced and emerging economies. According to the World Bank, many regions in Africa and Asia could see a 6% drop in GDP due to water related impacts on agriculture, health, and infrastructure (World Bank, 2016). This blog will explore some of the impacts climate change will have on our water infrastructure for consumers, food production, energy generation, environmental services and natural resource management in order to inform investments, policies and partnerships for a resilient and sustainable water systems.

Consumers: Access to safe drinking water has been compromised by extreme weather events causing flooding and contamination of drinking water. Over 700 children under the age of 5 die from diarrhea every day and by 2040, 1 in 4 children will face extreme water stress by 2040 if action is not taken now to address this threat (UNICEF).  This will only become exacerbated by increased rainfall variability associated with climate change. In order to address this, investment in water infrastructures such as reservoirs is needed with accompanying policies such as those developed by cities like Denver over the last century to increase water use efficiency to sustain economic growth (GDP growth per cubic meter of water). Efficient water recycling is another angle to ensure consumer access to water in drier environments such as reuse and recycle water refined by Israel that now uses 90% of its waste water to support agriculture

Food production: In our first blog we highlighted the important role of food production systems to capture carbon in our soils through proper soil conservation strategies. President Biden has directed the USDA to deliver a climate strategy for agriculture and forestry by June 2021. From a water use perspective, agriculture uses approximately 80% of our freshwater resources but you can use a water footprint calculator to see how much water goes into your daily diet; for example, 660 gallons of water is used to produce a hamburger compared to 21 gallons to generate a salad. The water footprint of food is helping drive the trend towards plant-based foods that can conserve a considerable amount of water with many reported health benefits for consumers. As temperatures rise, evaporative demand and rainfall variability will place more crop area under drought stress. To address this, investment in relief irrigation will be required to sustain crop production and reduce the risk of food insecurity and local famines. In order to prioritize irrigation investments, aWhere has developed a global weather database and tools to visualize local rainfall and temperature changes over the past 15 years. This serves as a great starting point on where to invest in irrigation in light soils conditions and domestic demand for different food crops to support a diversified and nutrition diet. 

Health: As we have seen with COVID-19, climate does influence human behavior and creates conditions conducive to the spread of infectious disease, especially for the poor who are stressed by lack of access to clean water, food and shelter damaged by extreme weather. However, the diseases that are “transmitted through water, through food, or by vectors such as mosquitoes and ticks, are highly sensitive to weather and climate conditions. The warmer, wetter and more variable conditions brought by climate change are therefore making it easier to transmit diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya, yellow fever, Zika virus, West Nile virus and Lyme disease in many parts of the world.” (Scientific American, 2020). Weather analytics can be used to get ahead of areas at high risk of flooding events that compromise inadequate sewage systems, create breeding grounds for mosquitos and other insect vectors can identify risks weeks ahead of an disease outbreak to enable effective health campaigns to be organized in advance as well as prioritize infrastructure investments to reduce long-term risks.  

Infrastructure: According to the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and Water Environment Federation (WEF) in 2017, billions of dollars in infrastructure losses can be averted by strategic infrastructure investments today when informed by good science and weather analytics. The ‘two principal goals for water and wastewater utilities regarding impacts due to climate change are: to assess risk and uncertainty due to climate change; and to develop and take actions to improve resiliency and sustainability in utility facilities and overall utility management.” However, our progress to addressing these goals has not kept pace with the increased demands posed by extreme weather events such as observed in Texas last month. aWhere has documented the challenges posed by flooding on aging drainage and dam infrastructure in Japan; even modern dams such as the Three Gorges Dam that saw a 500 mm higher than normal rainfall in Guizhou province during June 2020. 

For us to adapt to increased rainfall variability, our infrastructure investments and policies do need to be informed by accurate observed and forecast weather data coupled with agriculture, health and hydrology science and models to prioritize investments. Bloomberg has summarized some of the challenges posed by rainfall variability and the application of weather analytics to visualize these changes during our 2021 La Niña, impacting both advanced and emerging economies. 

While this blog focused on analytics to support adaptation to climate change, long term we need to build back a better and greener economy. Bill Gates has recently published a book that frames our Climate Crisis and how we reduce 51 billion tons of carbon emissions today down to zero emissions. Organizations like the Business Council for Sustainable Energy is one such example that is supporting businesses to leverage science-based solutions as we develop a zero-carbon economy to mitigate against climate change and provision energy to both advanced and emerging economies around the world. We all have a role to play and there is no time to waste as we collectively address the threats posed by climate change. Please see how aWhere is doing its part to help countries adapt to climate change at aWhere.com.