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Water management should adapt NOW

Ralph Pentland says we should avoid over-reacting to climate change, as the best policy would be to do what we should be doing anyway.

At the outset, I would like to point out that my own background is in water and environmental management. I do not profess to be an expert on climate – so my few remarks will be based as much on intuition as on science.

Let’s begin with the basics – assuming the climate forecasters are somewhere near the right ballpark. The hydrologic effects of climate change could include changes in annual, seasonal and extreme precipitation, evaporation and runoff. There could also be an earlier onset of soil drying in early summer, and decreases in soil moisture availability. And in a cold climate like ours in Canada, we could experience a decrease in the ratio of snowmelt to rain, and an increase in the rate of snowmelt in spring months.

These hydrologic changes would translate into a number of water resources effects – for example, effects on drought and flood magnitude and frequency; supply reliability; demand requirements; and water quality and ecosystem habitat conditions.

Since water tends to be both an environmental and an economic integrator, these water resource effects would impact on a broad range of socio-economic activities – agriculture, forestry, hydroelectricity, industry, municipalities, recreation, shipping, and so on.

It seems to me the first step in preparing for climate change should be in identifying the areas and activities that are likely to experience the most serious negative impacts of an increasing greenhouse effect. Areas where water resources are already sensitive to climatic variability will probably be most vulnerable to the impacts of future climate change. Generally speaking, such areas have few or many of the following characteristics:

* natural water deficits
* high societal demands
* high flood risk
* dependency on reliable seasonal supply
* sensitivity to lake levels
* decreasing water quality
* dependency on hydroelectricity
* sensitive natural ecosystems

Despite lingering predictive uncertainties, the implications for water resource systems are likely to include increased stress and more frequent failures. The apparent dilemma for water planners, managers and policy makers is whether to act on incomplete information, or to wait for more solid scientific support.

My own perception is that the dilemma is in fact more apparent than real, because the directions we should be moving to prepare for climate change are identical to those we should be moving anyway. Let me illustrate by way of a few examples:

  • We should begin to seriously question the real viability and sustainability of proposed irrigation systems, and make the existing ones more water efficient, with or without climate change. Climate change may force us to do it sooner.
  • We should discourage new development on flood plains and along susceptible shorelines, with or without climate change. Increasing climate variability may convince our citizens of the wisdom of that approach sooner.
  • We should broaden our arsenal of weapons for combating water quality deterioration, with or without climate change. Climate change could induce us to do it sooner.
  • We should price water and other environmental resources in such a way as to encourage their conservation – climate change may give us the incentive to do it sooner.
  • We should do less subsidizing and more taxing of environmentally damaging activities, with or without climate change. Climate change could convince our lawmakers to do it sooner.
  • Decentralized decision making, and application of user/polluter pays approaches should be practiced to the extent possible. These principles, which make sense anyway, are coming increasingly prudent with a less predictable future.
  • Some claim that most countries have less water and environmental planning capability today than they had a few decades ago. To the extent that is correct, we should reverse that trend, with or without climate change.

Some have suggested massive capital works solutions – I disagree, with one small proviso. I would take climate change scenarios into account as a secondary design consideration for projects that we are building anyway. For example, it may be possible to design water management schemes, at little or no extra cost today, in such a way that they could be modified later, if necessary, in response to a changing climate.

I do not think we should even contemplate major capital works projects at this time just to deal with potential climate trends. For example, if it doesn’t make economic sense now to further regulate the Great Lakes, we should not consider building capital works merely in anticipation of lower water supplies a few decades away – the evidence simply does not support it.

In fact, I would contend that the danger of over-reacting with structural measures is significantly greater than the danger of under-reacting. Let me elaborate by way of an admittedly far-fetched example. What would happen if two or more northern circum-polar countries were to decide simultaneously to solve their emerging drought problems by diverting some of their north-flowing rivers southwards?

Some oceanographers speculate that such an eventuality would affect arctic salinity gradients and climate circulation patterns in such a way as to actually accelerate the drying of the North American Great Plains. Whether one accepts that thesis or not, I am sure most would agree that the uncertainty alone is sufficient cause for caution.

In summary, what I am advocating is that we learn a lot more before contemplating any drastic adaptive measures, and that in the meantime, we simply do what we should be doing anyway – but that we do it much sooner and much better.

And cost should not be a serious concern. If my examples are anywhere near representative, a “sooner and better” strategy would almost surely result in long-term net savings.


PentlandRalph Pentland served as Director of the Water Planning and Management Branch in Environment Canada for 13 years, from 1978 to 1991. In that capacity, he negotiated and administered numerous Canada-U.S. and federal-provincial water Agreements, and was the primary author of the 1987 Federal Water Policy. Since 1991, he has served as a water and environmental policy consultant in many countries, and has collaborated with numerous non-governmental and academic institutions. Over the years, Ralph has co-chaired five International Joint Commission Boards and Committees. Most recently he was a member of the Government of the Northwest Territories Team negotiating bilateral water agreements in the multi-jurisdictional Mackenzie River Basin.

Soil will provide future food security

John Simaika warns that soil erosion is likely to be a big source of food insecurity.

As seen from space, we live on a blue planet – a planet full of water – with a little green and brown here and there. A closer look, however, reveals that especially around coasts, there is often a brown soup coming from streams entering the ocean, for example off the east coast of Madagascar (Green & Sussman 1990). The majority of times, this is associated with land use, starting far upstream of the wide rivers that then carry once fertile soils, accumulated over hundreds of kilometers, into the oceans. A lot of this soil will have been washed into streams by a process known as erosion, the natural enemy of soil formation. Erosion can be water-based or wind-based. In most cases, water erosion is of concern. In a world where the weather is predicted to become more extreme, soil erosion by water will, for many reasons increase significantly.

But why should we care about ‘dirt’? Well, because dirt is alive, an ecosystem of its own, that is so diverse, that it carries a plethora of organisms in just a teaspoon. In that teaspoon will be bacteria and fungi, part of the so-called microfauna, and nematode worms, mites and springtails, to name a few of the larger mesofauna. This might not seem all that significant, but soil ecosystems are responsible for the global storage and release of CO2 (Guo & Gifford 2002), a greenhouse gas known to cause global climate change (IPCC 2014). It is the capacity of soils overall to store carbon that aids in mitigating climate change (Lal 2004), but this capacity, and its response to a changing climate is not yet well understood (Frey et al. 2013). With limits on time for action, soil conservation and the creation of carbon sinks or pools is high on policy agendas.

Apart from their role in climate change mitigation, soils are responsible for good plant growth and thus maintain animal life, including human life. Soil quality, topography and microclimate are essential ingredients to plant crop health and thus good quality food. The effects of climatic change on soil per se are complex, as they depend on soil type (the physical composition), topography, biological soil composition (those little microbes and invertebrates mentioned earlier), ecosystem type (for example grassland or forest), local climate, the direction of rainfall change, land use and land management (Blankinship et al. 2011; Panagos et al. 2015).

Rainfall patterns and intensity in particular, are a direct concern: While areas that are already dry are predicted to become drier, those that are wet are becoming wetter still (Burt et al. 2016). The real concern is with the intensity of rainfall events. Fewer rainfall days are predicted, with more rainfall overall, in those days. It is the intensity of the rainfall that causes more soil to erode quicker. In a warmer, wetter world, rates of soil erosion will therefore increase (Burt et al. 2016). Already, in Europe, the mean soil loss rate (2.2 t ha-1 yr-1 for non-erosion-prone areas) exceeds the average soil formation rate (1.4 t ha-1 yr-1) by a factor of 1.6. About 12.7% of arable land in the European Union experiences unsustainable rates of soil loss (>5 t ha-1 yr-1), a pattern which is considered a major threat to food security for the European Union (Panagos et al. 2015). Factoring in more intense rainfall events in the future, would translate to higher incidences of crop damage (IPCC 2012) and to even greater losses of soils and carbon stocks across greater agricultural landscapes (Reichstein et al. 2013).

With about 11 billion people to feed, agriculture will have to intensify, presumably on smaller pockets of land, as increasingly erosion and salinization take their toll on the landscape. Anti-erosion measures will have to be implemented such as reduced or no tillage, the planting of cover crops, keeping plant residues at the soil surface, the maintenance of stone walls, and the increased use of grass margins and contour farming (Panagos et al. 2015). Urban populations will have to adapt, and new innovative ways of making food in cities will have to take precedence. Urban agriculture might take the shape of roof-top and balcony gardens, and hydroponic installations. Urban gardens and public parks could also increasingly play a role in food security, as they will be increasingly used to grow food. It could also mean that our reliance on high impact foods such as red meat will have to take a backseat to eating insects (van Huis 2013). Food production in the city would not only add utilitarian value, but potentially decrease greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality (Lee et al. 2015), while increasing the aesthetic appeal of city life, where at least some people would experience a sense of place and being.


John P. Simaika is a Conservation Ecologist at the Department of Soil Science, Stellenbosch University. His research is applied, focusing predominantly on the conservation of insects in land- and water-scapes. He is an active member of the IUCN Freshwater Conservation Sub-Committee, and is Conservation Chair of the South African Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology. To find out more, visit https://johnsimaika.wordpress.com/.

The new normal of extreme weather events

Ilaria Meggetto explains how “crazy storms” of today are likely to become harmfully normal.

Science tells us that we should expect increased temperatures in the upcoming years and that, even if we were to suddenly cease all anthropic emissions of greenhouse gases today, the global thermometer would still go up by some points, due to the climate system’s inertia, and stabilize only in the long term. As discouraging as it is, this is not the worst thing about climate change. The data we have is also consistent in indicating not only an increase in temperature records, but also an increase in their variance, so that while all temperatures rise on average, so does the frequency of their extremes and the events connected to them – droughts, floods, heatwaves and storms.

HK
Hong Kong. Together with the Pearl River Delta cities, this coastal area hosts about 50 million people. Source: Author (August 2014)

I have lived in different places, experiences hot and cold climate. Before 2013, though, I had never been to the Tropics so when I moved to South China I did know what a typhoon is but had no idea what it means. During my first week there I was awoken by a strong thundering noise, so overwhelming and continuous that it could not be ignored. They sky over the 14-million-people-megacity of Guangzhou had turned deep red and, together with the intense smog above the whole area – making the horizon smoky all the time – for a moment I was under the impression the city was being bombed. Then, all of a sudden, a violent wind carried a mountain of water down the place. The rain did not stop for 4 days. Streets flooded. Electricity failed. Typhoon Utor had landed.

Hayian
Typhoon Haiyan’s trail, 11 November 2013. Source: GDACS – Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System

A typhoon is a tropical cyclone is a storm system generated by the evaporation of massive amounts of water and it is characterized by intense thunderstorms whose winds blow above 118 km/h. As I learnt, locals call the period from May to September the “Season of Storms” and 2013 was the most active Pacific typhoon season since 2004 and the deadliest since 1975. A total of 52 depressions, 31 storms, 13 typhoons and 5 super typhoons formed in that year, the last being Category 5 Super Typhoon Haiyan that, with its winds up to 230 km/h, bought devastation across the South China Sea and 6,300 victims in the Philippines.

Understanding how this system works was crucial for me as it will be for many: deciding whether the apartment you want to rent is at risk of flood, knowing where to go when the typhoon alarm rings, stocking water supplies, putting together an emergency kit… are only some of the basic things needed to live in a place hit by intensified weather events. This situation, however, is not a local problem as it is transforming in geography and occurrence as we speak.

Oceans are warming up all over the world. The duration, intensity and number of storms has already increased by 50% compared to the 1970s. 70 to 100 tropical storms used to be the annual average but in the past few years this number has been almost matched by the storms generated in the North Pacific Ocean alone

Half of the world’s population resides along the coast, threatened by the sea level rise and the violence of weather events. When it comes to climate talks, water scarcity is in the spotlight but where water is too much, rising above the 2-meter-threshold and storming densely inhabited shores, the situation is equally dreadful. As disrupted climate patterns and unpredictable trends reach areas considered stable or safe in the past, being able to “read the signs”, subscribing to weather alerts, living “prepared” is likely to become the new normal for most of us.


IMIlaria Meggetto (email) is a Project Manager at Hydroaid (Italy), researcher, traveller, and passionate about climate change.

Look offshore, a deep subsea well to sink

Todd Jarvis proposes that undersea freshwater aquifers mean that we never need worry about water scarcity.

Water, water everywhere
Nor any drop to drink
Water, water everywhere
Look offshore, a deep subsea well to sink

Apologies to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by English poet Samuel Coleridge, but this passage is a fitting introduction to the future of water supplies as our Earth “ship” slips into uncharted waters in the wake of climate change.  Yes, desalination of sea and brackish waters will likely become ever more popular as the costs per cubic meter continue to decrease. But the real opportunity is not the sea, per se, but rather what lies below the sea.

Researchers located on the driest continent, Australia, posit that 500,000 cubic km of freshwater are stored in subsea aquifers on continental shelves around the world. “The volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we’ve extracted from the Earth’s sub-surface in the past century since 1900.” While the Australians are famous for hosting some of the most famous water diviners in the world, this discovery is not wishful thinking, but rather the result of careful examination of offshore drilling data for oil and gas on the continental shelves across the globe.

Oil_platform_in_the_North_Sea
Source: Creative commons/Wikipedia

With so much water at our disposal as we spin towards Life plus 2 Meters (and perhaps then some), why would there be any future talk of water wars? This is where things get deep as the legal arguments for who has access and ownership for sub-seabed water is not crystal clear.  Does “groundwater” fall under the UN Commission on the Law of the Sea where countries can claim ownership to an Exclusive Economic Zone that extends 370 km offshore from its coastal baseline? Or is it possible that a variant such as the Law of the Hidden Sea might apply to deep groundwater that is hydraulically connected to the sea? Perhaps water stored in “fossil aquifers” such as offshore aquifers should be viewed as part of the common(s) heritage of humans? Or, perhaps government should step aside and let business into the world of groundwater governance much like how the US and Mexico are dealing with subsea hydrocarbons in the Gulf of Mexico by “unitizing” maritime transboundary reservoirs?

The underwater village of Atlit-Yam located offshore of Israel provides evidence that there is Life afterplus 2 Meters.  The water supply of the village of Atlit Yam was apparently based in part on groundwater. One of the oldest wells in the world, a 7,500-year-old water well, lies between 8 to 12 meters beneath sea level in the Bay of Atlit.

Samuel Coleridge once said “Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.” While climate change may be the “albatross around one’s neck”, the “commons” sense development of offshore aquifers will ultimately lead to more cooperation and wiser use of onshore water resources.


Todd Jarvis is a hydrogeologist with over 30 years of experience. Prior to joining Oregon State University with the Institute for Water & Watersheds and the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, he worked for global water/wastewater engineering and groundwater engineering firms. He blogs on water at Rainbow Water Coalition and wrote Contesting Hidden Waters: Conflict Resolution for Groundwater and Aquifers. He serves as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Oregon Law School teaching Environmental Conflict Resolution and a consultant to UNESCO in their Shared Waters training program.