Concerned about the availability and sustainability of water resources now and in the future, experts from around the world have gathered in Bonn, Germany to “synthesize major global water research achievements in the last decade and help assemble the scientific foundations to articulate a common vision of Earth’s water future.”
A “capstone event” for the Global Water Systems Project (GWSP), “Water in the Anthropocene” is expected to result in the recommendation of “priorities for decision makers in the areas of earth system science and water resources governance and management.”
Water in the Anthropocene
Human population and activities have expanded and intensified to the point where they have altered the Earth’s fundamental regulatory processes and mechanisms, including our planet’s climate and hydrological cycles, posing grave threats to humanity’s sustainability, according to GWSP, which has put together a list of startling facts regarding humanity’s impact on the natural environment and its fundamental life-support systems and mechanisms:
- Humanity uses an area the size of South America to grow its crops and an area the size of Africa for raising livestock
- Due to groundwater and hydrocarbon pumping in low lying coastal areas, two-thirds of major river deltas are sinking, some of them at a rate four times faster on average than global sea level is rising
- More rock and sediment is now moved by human activities such as shoreline in-filling, damming and mining than by the natural erosive forces of ice, wind and water combined
- Many river floods today have links to human activities, including the Indus flood of 2010 (which killed 2,000 people), and the Bangkok flood of 2011 (815 deaths)
- On average, humanity has built one large dam every day for the last 130 years. Tens of thousands of large dams now distort natural river flows to which ecosystems and aquatic life adapted over millennia
- Drainage of wetlands destroys their capacity to ease floods-a free service of nature expensive to replace
- Evaporation from poorly-managed irrigation renders many of the world’s rivers dry — no water, no life. And so, little by little, tens of thousands of species edge closer to extinction every day.
Threats to water resources now extend “far beyond ‘classic’ drinking water and sanitation issues and includes water quality and quantity for ecosystems at all scales,” according to GWSP.
“The fact is, as world water problems worsen, we lack adequate efforts to monitor the availability, condition and use of water — a situation presenting extreme long term cost and danger,” GWSP co-chair Claudia Pahl-Wostl was quoted in a press release.
“Human water security is often achieved in the short term at the expense of the environment with harmful long-term implications. The problems are largely caused by governance failure and a lack of systemic thinking in both developed and developing countries.
“Economic development without concomitant institutional development will lead to greater water insecurity in the long-term. Global leadership is required to deal with the water challenges of the 21st century.”
“Humanity changes the way water moves around the globe like never before, causing dramatic harm,” continued Joe Alcamo, chief scientist of the UN Environment Programme and former co-chair of the GWSP, a keynote speaker at the Bonn conference. “By diverting freshwater for agricultural, industrial and municipal use, for example, our coastal wetlands receive less and less, and often polluted, freshwater. The results include decreased inland and coastal biodiversity, increased coastal salinity and temperature, and contaminated agricultural soils and agricultural runoff.”
Added co-chair and GWSP founding member Charles Vörösmarty, “By throwing concrete, pipes, pumps, and chemicals at our water problems, to the tune of a half-trillion dollars a year, we’ve produced a technological curtain separating clean water flowing from our pipes and the highly-stressed natural waters that sit in the background. We treat symptoms of environmental abuse rather than underlying causes. Thus, problems continue to mount in the background, yet the public is largely unaware of this reality or its growing costs.”
Image credit: dsearls, courtesy flickr