Climate Change and Water: Where We Are Heading To?

Climate Change and Water: Where We Are Heading To?

Sabrina Rashid Sheonty

“Climate change” has become a buzzword in this 21st century. We all probably know there are researchers and environmentalists trying to raise their voices against it and trying to make us aware its dreadful consequences. But the first question is, are we still fully aware of the true meaning of climate change? In simple words, climate change refers to the changes or variations in our climatic pattern that persist for a longer period of time, typically decades or more. Now the most crucial question comes here: are we really prepared for the world we are gradually moving towards due to climate change? Let alone facing all the challenges, are we even prepared enough to face the upcoming challenges only on “water”? Water being one of the most essential components of our environment, comprises about 71% of the earth’s surface, among which 97% being salt water and 3% being fresh water. In this 3% fresh water, about 2% is stored in icecaps and in glaciers, so they aren’t really usable; only 1% is available as a form of groundwater and surface water. This 1% of fresh water is utmost important for our daily life as we use regularly it for our household, industrial and agricultural purpose. But unfortunately, this is going to be the sector that will be heavily impacted by climate change which can be catastrophic for human existence. So, adaptation, resilience and preparedness have no alternative to encounter the upcoming challenges we are going to face.

Starting from the global perspective, the world temperature has increased alarmingly for the past few decades due to climate change. According to the NOAA 2019 Global Climate Summary, the combined land and ocean temperature has increased at an average rate of 0.07°C or 0.13°F per decade since 1880 but the average rate of increase since 1981 is 0.18°C or 0.32°F which is more than twice than the previous. This abrupt increase in temperature is affecting in many parts of the water cycle. In one hand, the precipitation pattern is turning the environment into an extreme one and on the other hand, it is melting the polar ice which is rising the sea level alarmingly. Some part of the world will have more precipitation and some part of the world will become drier. The countries receiving more precipitation will face challenges in stormwater management and also will have threats of floods and waterlogging where the drier countries will face droughts and water scarcity to meet the water demand for their agriculture and industries. In this process, the economically poorer countries will suffer the most for the access of safe water for drinking, sanitation and daily use. Taking U.S. as an example, the northern, midwest and central parts of U.S. are expected to have an increase in the intensity and frequency of heavy precipitation events where west, southwest, and southeast parts are expected to receive a decrease according to a study of Peterson (2013).


Figure: Precipitation change in U.S (source: Peterson et al. 2013)


This changing trend in precipitation will increase imbalance in supply and demand of water for daily uses which may create water stress in U.S making people suffer to access. According to a study from Michigan State University, up to 40.9 million American households may not be able to afford water and wastewater services in 2022 because of climate change.

Now, coming to the regional perspective, predictions are there that Asia will face the hardest hit by climate change in comparison to other continents. By 2050, parts of Asia will experience rise in average temperatures with lethal heat waves, extreme precipitation events and natural disasters like cyclones, drought, floods, hurricanes etc. As Asia has more residents in coastal cities than to all the other cities of the world, the negative impacts of sea level rise will be faced the most in Asia. According to Center for Strategic and International Studies, the 50-70 centimeter rise in sea levels is expected by the end of the century which will threaten the 77% of Southeast Asians who live along the coast or in low lying river deltas. By 2050, predicted average annual flood levels will inundate the homes of over 79 million people in Southeast Asia. Also, about 3.4 billion people in Asia could face water stress by this time. A report by the Australian Water Partnership in 2019 found that water quality in India, Thailand and Vietnam is degrading due to the flow alteration in Himalayan and Mekong rivers. Moreover, the warming climate will melt a significant amount of Tibet’s glaciers in the next 75 years which will affect the water quality of many major rivers of Asia. Overall, these reasons will exacerbate water insecurity throughout the region specially to the poor countries. According to the McKinsey & Company’s Climate risk and response in Asia report, countries with low per capita GDP like Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan and emerging Asia like Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are in most vulnerable condition from the impacts of climate change. Moreover, this increasing water scarcity will intensify the geopolitical competition and conflicts across this region over the regional water resources management issues like sharing of transboundary river water or construction of dams and barrage at the upstream of a river.


Now, focusing to the Bangladesh perspective, it needs to be mentioned at first that being a low-lying delta with exposed coastal area and having socio-economic factors like high population density and poverty, Bangladesh is one of the handful of countries that are at the highest risk of climate change. According to the 2020 edition of Germanwatch’s Climate Risk Index, it ranked seventh in the list of countries that are most affected by climate calamities during 1999–2018. As a low-lying delta with such a huge population in the coastal cities, it can be disastrous for us if the sea level continues to rise because of climate change. According to Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan 2008, the sea levels in Bangladesh are predicted to rise by up to 0.30 metres by 2050 which may result in the displacement of 0.9 million people in the coastal belt. Moreover, the increasing salinity in coastal region is creating problems in agriculture and access of pure drinking water. According to Soil Resources Development Institute (SRDI), Ministry of Agriculture, Bangladesh, over the last 35 years, salinity has increased to 26% within the country. Previously, salinity affected land was 83.3 million hectares in 1973 in Bangladesh which increased to 102 million hectares in 2000 and 105.6 million hectares in 2009. However, Bangladesh will also struggle to have their part of share of the major rivers as the upstream of maximum rivers are situated in India, Nepal and China. Failure to negotiate in transboundary water issues with India, Nepal and other neighboring countries can intensify the water scarcity thus create problems to meet the agricultural and industrial water demand. Where the scarcity of water will be high in dry season, on the other hand, the increasing trend in precipitation indicate that Bangladesh will fall victim of frequent floods during monsoon in future. Thus, storm water management issues will be crucial in the upcoming future to prevent waterlogging and drainage congestion. The government of Bangladesh is trying to focus on these upcoming challenges and with a vision of sustainable management of water resources, the Delta Plan 2100 was launched in 2018.


Last but not the least, because of climate change, we are gradually moving toward a world that is not desirable to any of us. We need to acknowledge that climate change and its impact on water is a global issue and the whole world is at risk due to it. Thus, to combat the negative impacts of climate change and to have a sustainable world, we all need to be come forward to form policies and strategies to save the world.

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