No, this post is not about the movie from 1995 starring Kevin Costner in the role of a mutated mariner. Although there is much attention in mainstream media on global sea level rise it is probably not the most serious issue we face from climate change. Instead, it's the scarcity of freshwater that concern many scientists and farmers.

Water scarcity

We live on a water planet and life itself depend on water. Freshwater resources are fundamental for maintaining human health, agricultural production, economic activity as well as critical ecosystem functions. Currently, 780 million people, about 1 in 9, lack access to clean drinking water and 2.5 billion people don't have access to a toilet (water.org). As population and demand grows, new constraints on water resources are appearing, raising questions about limits to water availability and its potential consequences. 

Global groundwater crisis
Groundwater supplies in the world's driest regions are approaching the point of crisis according to a recent commentary in the journal Nature Climate Change. Famiglietti (2014) at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory shows satellite data confirming that the amount of water stored in seven of the world's major aquifers declined drastically since the early 2000s (see chart). Many of these regions are grappling with drought. Californian farmers are facing unprecedented water cutbacks (Greenwire) and in September a new bill was passed concerning management of groundwater on a statewide basis. Northern China is in the midst of its worst drought in 60 years and armed bandits are institution illegal "water taxes" on small villages in India (Greenwire). Famiglietti says that "It's worse than people realize in part because declining groundwater reserves don't normally get included in assessments of drought" (Climatewire). While reversing climate change is not a possibility, managing our groundwater is. 

Big global aquifers have headed in one direction in recent years: down

Source: Famiglietti (2014).
A key factor in groundwater depletion is that water laws do not do much to manage aquifers. Active water management requires collaboration across institutional levels and public debate on how to allocate and preserve the remaining water ecosystem so it benefits all parties. Groundwater monitoring and management has been very neglected in most parts of the world where aquifers serve as a crucial source of supply for irrigated agriculture and cities. If not handled properly, the results will likely be rising food prices that in worst case scenario could lead to hunger and civil unrest (NECSI).

World Food Program, 2009
Conflict over water is not a new phenomena but it may become more common as climate change and population growth increases pressure on fresh water resources. Some argue that there has been an increase in water-related violence globally, in relation to development projects and economic activities (Pacific Institute). The devastating civil war that began in Syria in 2011 had a direct link to water scarcity and climatic conditions, six year drought, that played a role in the deterioration of Syria's economic conditions and led to mass migrations of rural communities into cities (Gleick, 2014). In 2012, scientists from New England Complex Systems Institute warned about the risk of rising food prices, FAO food price index above 210, leading to civil unrest and riots across the globe. 

Food prices (black line) and food riots and the Arab Spring (red lines)
Source: M. Lagi, K.Z. Bertrand, Y. Bar-Yam, 2011

Climate change redistributes water around the planet, with dry areas becoming dryer and wet areas getting wetter (i.e. droughts and floods become more common). This puts extra stress on fresh water ecosystems and reservoirs. Combined with population growth and water mismanagement this can lead to a water crisis that puts extra pressure on a society and in combination with other factors contribute to full scale conflict, especially in cases of trans-boundary water resources. Countries with little resilience to such shocks are thus most vulnerable to a changing climate. This subject area is poorly understood and needs to be researched further as we head into uncertain times.


Out of the ashes into the fire

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