If you’ve spent days this winter battling the polar vortex, it might be hard to wrap your head around the idea that the freezing weather was actually caused by warming temperatures. But wait, there’s more: The same global warming that sent arctic weather our way will also lead to massive water shortages in the not-so-distant future.
A group of researchers from 12 countries recently released a report predicting that an increase of just 2 degrees Celsius in global temperatures above present levels could leave one-fifth of the world’s population thirsty. On the list of the most at-risk regions for severe water scarcity: the southern United States.
A couple days ago, The New York Times published an article on the Colorado River that started with the sobering statistic that the once-mighty river of the Southwest has suffered “14 years of drought nearly unrivaled in 1,250 years.”
Seven states rely on the Colorado River for water. An Interior Department report released in 2012 projected that the population served by the Colorado could nearly double in the next 50 years, from 40 million to 76.5 million people. With rising temperatures and demand already exceeding supply, the river won’t be able to keep up. Facing the reality of water shortage scenarios, Nevada official John Entsminger told The New York Times, “It sure looks like in the 21st century, we’re all going to have to use less water.”
The Colorado River isn’t the only stressed watershed in the region. Southern California’s Santa Ana River Watershed was the topic of a 2013 Interior Department report. According to the agency, the future’s looking a bit dry there, too, as human population, agricultural and industry demands keep growing at the same time climate change is diminishing the supply side. A river just can’t catch a break these days.
Back to that 2 degree increase that’ll cause water shortages for one-fifth of the world. Based on our current track record, it could happen as soon as mid-century — around the same time the global population is pushing nearly 10 billion people.
So, how do we stop this?
Suggestions from the Interior Department’s 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study included “wrapping large water bags around icebergs in the Alaska region and using tug boats to transport the frozen water to a port along the coast of Southern California.”
Or we could focus on reducing emissions, conserving water and stabilizing population growth so we can have a healthier planet where people and wildlife thrive.
Climate change, overconsumption and population growth need to be more than just bullet points buried in policy reports. These issues need to be the policies.
We need to drastically cut back on water and energy intensive systems, like raising livestock for food. And instead of continuing the trend of unprecedented attacks on reproductive rights in the U.S., we need to increase access to contraception and family planning. Watershed management plans should go beyond simply meeting the needs of ever-growing human populations to actually enhance the watershed’s habitat and provide a healthier ecosystem for the people and wildlife relying on it.
And maybe, if we place our bets on confronting global warming and population growth, we can give rivers, wildlife and us a chance.
Stephanie Feldstein is Population and Sustainability Director at the Center for Biological Diversity.