The Role of Water Abuse in Climate Chaos

[Maude Barlow] Notes for the International Women’s Earth and Climate Summit. New York City, September 20-23, 2013

There is a crucial, missing component in the both the current analysis of climate chaos and in the proposed solutions to it. Most climate academics and activists see climate chaos as almost solely the result of greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels as well as methane pollution from extractive industries and animal production. The solution to the crisis is to curb the creation of CO2 and other air pollutants and move to alternative and sustainable energy sources.

While I of course fully recognize and support the science behind this analysis and join with other climate activists in fighting the growth in fossil fuels, especially those coming from fracking and the tar sands of my own country, Canada, I do strongly feel that there is a missing piece of the puzzle that needs to be addressed if we are to properly understand the true nature of the crisis. That missing piece is our abuse, mismanagement and displacement of water. When we speak of climate change and water, it is usually to acknowledge that warming is having a serious and negative impact on freshwater supplies around the world. And indeed it is. Warmer weather causes more rapid evaporation of lakes and rivers, reduced snow and ice cover on open water systems, and melting glaciers. All this takes a terrible toll on the planet’s water systems.

What is less understood is that our cavalier treatment of fresh water is also a major cause of climate chaos and global warming and needs to be addressed by our movement. If we are to successfully address climate change, it is time to include an analysis of how our abuse of water is an additional factor in the creation of global warming and that any solutions to the crisis must include the protection of water and the restoration of watersheds.

Modern humans have largely lost our connection with water in its natural state. Instead of seeing water as the essential element in a living watershed that gives us all life, we view water as s resource for our convenience,pleasure and profit. So we dump pollutants into our watersheds, over-extract our rivers to death and pump ancient fossil groundwater faster than nature can replenish it. Rivers no longer reach the ocean; aquifers are running dry; deserts are expanding. Five hundred scientists recently warned that our collective abuse of water has caused the planet to enter a “new geologic age” – a “planetary transformation” not unlike the retreat of the glaciers 11,000 years ago.

There are two ways in which this mistreatment of water affects climate.

The first is the actual displacement of water from where it sustains healthy ecosystems, which in turn sustain healthy hydrologic cycles. Modern societies regularly move water around to suit their needs. Cities are built over top buried rivers and streams. Water is massively dammed and diverted for our purposes. Water is moved from where nature has put it (and where we can access it) in watersheds and aquifers, either for flood irrigation for food production – where much of it lost to evaporation – or to supply the voracious thirst of mega cities, where it is usually dumped as waste into the ocean.

Because humanity has polluted so much surface water of the planet, we are now mining the groundwater far faster than it can be replaced by nature. Global water withdrawals have risen 50 per cent in the last several decades and are still increasing dramatically. Using bore well technology that did not exist a hundred years ago, humans are now relentlessly mining groundwater.

Worldwide pumping of groundwater more than doubled between 1960 and 2000 and is responsible for a significant percentage of the rise in sea levels. When water cannot return to fields, meadows, wetlands and streams because of urban sprawl, poor farming practices, overgrazing, and the removal of water-retentive landscapes, the actual amount of water in the local hydrologic cycle decreases, leading to desertification of once-green land.

When we remove water from soil, the soil heats up the air around it. Water is also lost to ecosystems in the form of virtual trade – water used in the in the production of crops or manufactured goods that are then exported. Over 20% of daily water used for human purpose is exported out of watersheds in this way. Water is also piped across long distances for industry leaving behind parched landscapes.

The second way our treatment of watersheds affects climate is the removal of the vegetation needed for a healthy hydrologic cycle. Urbanization, deforestation and wetland destruction greatly destroy water-retentive landscapes and lead to the loss of precipitation over the affected area. Quite simply, if there is nothing green to receive the rain, cloud vapours will blow away, creating desert where there was a living ecosystem. Recent studies confirm that when rainforests are cut down, precipitation in the area declines. We all know that the Dust Bowl was caused by rapid clearance of prairie grasslands, leaving dried up topsoil to blow away. But we think the drought was an unfortunate and untimely act of God. Not so. Studies show the removal of water from the soil amplified a natural drop in rainfall and turned an ordinary dry cycle into a disaster.

Slovakian scientist Michal Kravcik and his colleagues explain that the living world influences the climate mainly by regulating the water cycle and the huge energy flows linked to it. Transpiring plants, especially forests, work as a kind of biotic pump, causing humid air to be sucked out of the ocean and transferred to dry land. If the vegetation is removed from the land, this natural system of biosphere regulation is interrupted. Soil erodes, reducing the content of organic material in the ground, thus reducing its ability to hold water. Dry soil from lost vegetation traps solar heat, sharply increasing the local temperature and causing a reduction in precipitation over the affected area. This process also destroys the natural sequestration of carbon in the soil, leading to carbon loss.

Of course, these two ways in which our abuse of water affects climate are deeply related. Just as removing vegetation from an ecosystem will dry up the soil, so too will removing water from an ecosystem mean reduced or non-existent vegetation. As Kravcik explains, the yellow of the sun combined with the blue of water creates the green of our living world.

Remove either the blue or the green from the earth and the heat of the sun will change everything. Taken together, these two factors are hastening the desertification of the planet, and intensifying global warming. Kravcik says that even if we successfully address and reverse greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on fossil fuels, if we do not deal with the impact of our abuse of water on the planet, we will not be able to stop climate change. Unless we collectively address the crisis of fresh water and our cavalier treatment of the world’s water systems, we will not restore the climate to health.

Restoration of Watersheds

The solution to the water portion of this crisis is the restoration of watersheds. Bring water back into parched landscapes. Return water that has disappeared by retaining as much rainwater as possible within the ecosystem so that water can permeate the soil, replenish groundwater systems, and return to the atmosphere to regulate temperatures and renew the hydrologic cycle. All human, industrial and agricultural activity must conform to this imperative, a project that could also employ millions and alleviate poverty in the global South. Our cities must be ringed with green conservation zones and we must restore forests and wetlands – the lungs and kidneys of fresh water. For this to be successful, three basic laws of nature must be addressed.

First, it is necessary to create the conditions that allow rainwater to remain in local watersheds. This means restoring the natural spaces where rainwater can fall and where water can flow. Water retention can be carried out at all levels: roof gardens in family homes and office buildings; urban planning that allows rain and storm water to be captured and returned to the earth; water harvesting in food production; capturing daily water discharge and returning it clean to the land, not to the rising oceans.

Second, we cannot continue to mine groundwater supplies at a rate greater than natural recharge. If we do, there will not be enough water for the next generation. Extractions cannot exceed recharge just as a bank account cannot be drawn down without new deposits. Governments everywhere must undertake intensive research into their groundwater supplies and regulate groundwater takings before their underground reservoirs are gone. This may mean a shift in policy from export to domestic and local production.

Third, we must stop polluting our surface and groundwater sources and we must back up this intention with strict legislation. Water abuse in oil and methane gas production and mining must stop. We must wean ourselves of industrial and chemical-based agricultural practices and listen to the many voices sounding the alarm around the rush toward water-guzzling biofuel farming. We need to promote “subsidiarity,” whereby nation-state policies and international trade rules could support local food production in order to protect the environment and promote local sustainable agriculture. Such policies would also discourage the virtual trade in water and countries could ban or limit the mass movement of water by pipeline. Government investment in water and wastewater infrastructure would save huge volumes of water lost every day in old or non-existent systems. Domestic laws could enforce water-harvesting practices at every level.

Toward a Water Secure World

Clearly, for this rescue plan to be successful, governments around the world must acknowledge the water crisis before them and the part that water abuse plays in the drying of the planet. This in turn means that a nation’s water resources must be considered in every government policy at all levels.

Nations must undertake intensive studies to ascertain the health of watersheds and placement and size of groundwater reserves. All activities that will impact water must conform to a new ethic – backed by law – that protects water sources from pollution and over-pumping. This will likely mean a strong challenge to government policies that favour unlimited global economic growth.

Nearly two billion people live in water-stressed regions of the earth. Until now, most governments have addressed this terrible realty with a program to further exploit groundwater sources. But current levels of groundwater takings are unsustainable. To truly realize the universal right to water, and to protect water for nature as well, means a revolution in the way we treat the world’s finite water resources. There is no time to lose.