While growing up, children are taught in school that nearly three-fourths of the earth's surface is covered with water. However, only 3% is freshwater while the rest is saltwater.
Since the dawn of civilization, people have been consuming this 3% of water. Everything in life, from basic thirst, people’s livelihoods, industries, transportation, and technologies, on top of ecosystems and biodiversity, cannot be sustained without water. Water is life. However, in recent years, water is becoming both one of the most vulnerable sectors and a medium through which nature and human societies experience most of the impacts of climate change.
In basic terms, climate change is disrupting global weather patterns and resulting in extreme weather events including more frequent and intense cyclones, floods, droughts, and other water-related hazards. All these factors are leading to unpredictable water availability, exacerbating water scarcity, and contaminating water supplies. As a result, a growing number of people are experiencing “water stress,” mainly in African and Asian regions.
Water Access Threatened by Poor Management and Climate Change
African communities, rich in culture and surrounded by natural diversity, rely heavily on access to rivers and lakes for their basic needs. Lake Chad and Lake Victoria are two of the many major sources of water on the continent, some of which are becoming sources of conflict.
A video report by Yale showed the dire consequence of climate change-driven water stress—scarcity and conflict are both increasing. This video features four pastoralist tribes that are heavily dependent on Lake Turkana which is spread between two countries, Kenya and Ethiopia. Due to various climatic events, the lake is shrinking.
Local nomadic tribes have no option but to cross national boundaries to reach needed water, thus leading to an international conflict in the disputed land between South Sudan and Kenya, known as the Ilemi Triangle, that also borders Ethiopia. Due to the shrinkage of the lake, people from Ethiopia also try to trespass on this piece of land which further intensifies the regional tension. Turkana people, who have lived in this region since before these modern countries even existed, face various political problems which directly hamper their lives and livelihoods.
Unsustainable irrigation projects, the disruption of incoming rivers, soaring temperatures, and scarce rainfall are the main causes of the shrinkage of Lake Chad. Similar types of problems are occurring throughout the world.
A report by DW illustrates similar types of problems in different parts of the world. Bolivia’s once-mighty Lake Poopó dried completely due to adverse effects of El Niño, increasing temperatures, and the redirection of its source river to agricultural lands and mining operations. Lake Chad, one of the largest lakes in the world and the source of food and water for millions in the region, is also vanishing at an astonishing rate. Since the 1960s, it has been reduced to an area of just 1350 square kilometers, down from 25,000 square kilometers. Unsustainable irrigation projects, the disruption of incoming rivers, soaring temperatures, and scarce rainfall are the main causes of the shrinkage of Lake Chad.
The Dead Sea in the Middle East and the Aral Sea in Europe are also facing the same fate. Fed by the Jordan River, the Dead Sea survived evaporation for centuries, but increasing population and temperature rise are heavily disrupting the equilibrium. Water is also being diverted for domestic and industrial use, such that the Dead Sea is decreasing annually by around one meter.
Uzbekistan was once the world’s largest cotton exporter. The cotton industry relied upon water from the Aral Sea, which was once the fourth-largest lake in the world. Heavy irrigation and industrial use of the Aral Sea caused continuous shrinking from the 1970s. The receding water left behind desolate former harbors and destroyed both the ecosystems that relied on it and the livelihoods of the local populations.
In coastal Bangladesh, both surface water and groundwater supplies have become contaminated by severe salinity over the past few decades due to anthropogenic reasons and changes in the climate. Thus, the communities living in those area are facing severe crises regarding access to potable water and the ability to produce crops on their agricultural land.
Currently, salinity has intruded more than 100 km (62 miles) inland into Bangladesh’s domestic ponds, groundwater, and agricultural land through various estuaries and water inlets, which are also interlinked with the major rivers. This is exposing millions of people to public health risks. Excess salinity in water has been found to cause preeclampsia and gestational hypertension in pregnant women.
Water Scarcity Can Benefit from Nature-Based Solutions
Many developmental organizations, environmental organizations and government agencies are working to solve the global water crisis. For example, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in an issue brief, outlined several strategies for policymakers to consider in responsibly managing water resources. These include investment planning for climate change adaptation and promoting the management, restoration, and sustainability of “natural infrastructure” around waterways, among other ideas.
In a policy brief, UN-Water identified some of the key points required to meet this challenge, including improving water management, ensuring transboundary cooperation in adaptation, and rethinking climate financing in this sector to support climate resilience and job creation at the local level.
In the meantime, organizations like the United Nations and IUCN are now heavily promoting nature-based solutions (NbS) to help address climate change and other environmental problems. NbS use or mimic natural processes to contribute to improved water management and tend to deliver groups of ecosystem services, even if only one is being targeted. Water-related issues can be addressed by NbS initiatives since ecosystem degradation is one of the main consequences.
To start, managing the availability of water can be supported by NbS, such as natural wetland management or improving the water retention of soil. Other NbS, such as properly maintaining surrounding forests and grasslands to filter sediment pollution, can also improve water quality in concert with man-made infrastructures and wastewater treatments. Furthermore, conserving green infrastructure such as floodplains can greatly support water-related risk management. Finally, through enhancing water security by improving water availability and water quality, NbS support social, economic, and environmental co-benefits. These are a few of the many opportunities that NbS bring in addressing the issue of global water security in a changing climate.
*Tasfia Tasnim is a researcher in the field of environment and climate change. Currently, she coordinates the Nature-based Solutions (NbS) Programme at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD). Her research interests lie in NbS, climate-change adaptation, and climate finance. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sakib Rahman Siddique Shuvo is a geographer whose primary research interests are social-political-environmental issues, climate change, and critical geographies and geospatial technologies. He can be reached at email@example.com.