It is now time to think past our kitchen sinks and to consider the nature of the water cycle in relation to climate and how freshwater circulates around the whole world before it reaches us.
“The hydrological cycle traces the largest movement of any substance on Earth. Water has always had, and will continue to have, a controlling influence on the Earth’s evolution. Although the impact of human activities on climate cannot be used without including the role of water in all its phases, our quest is handicapped by the lack of quantitative knowledge about the distribution of water and by the need to understand reciprocal interactions with the climate system.”
During the latter part of the 20th century and even in the beginning of this one it was understood that it was the functioning of the global water cycle, which underpinned climatic conditions. In 1999 the National Research Council on Hydrologic Science emphasized the central role of water in the Earth’s climate-system. Nowadays this vital connection is greatly under emphasized, leading to ineffective actions in dealing with global water shortages and human induced climatic changes.
“Water is at the heart of both the causes and the effects of climate change. It is essential to establish rates of and possible changes in precipitation, evapotranspiration, and cloud water content” (USGCRP, ‘A Plan for a New Science Initiative on the Global Water Cyle, Chapter 1, 2001)
In many places in the world it is hard for people to understand the implications of a freshwater crisis. In the UK, and many places in Europe, America and Canada people often feel that there is too much rain and hence it is hard to conceive of water shortages. However this is not the case everywhere on Earth and it won’t even continue to be in water rich areas, unless greater effort is made to safeguard the global water cycle.
“Water continuously circulates within and among the Earth’s oceans, atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, land surface and land subsurface. These movements of water are termed the global water cycle. The water cycle, however, involves much more than the fluxes of water itself. The water cycle sustains life by transporting both mass and energy. The water cycle sustains a habitable environment through the transport of biologically and geochemically reactive substances necessary to life and through the latent heat exchange and radiative effects that play a central role in the planet’s climate.”
(View Full PDF. National Science Foundation, Water Cycle Research, Program Solicitation NSF-02-101)
The water cycle is a global cycle and if this cycle ceases to function the majority of life on Earth will become extinct.
“The magnitude of the global freshwater crisis and the risks associated with it, have been greatly underestimated. One billion people on earth are without reliable supplies of water and more than 2 billion people lack basic sanitation.” (View: U.N Water Security, 2012.pdf )
This is an immensely important issue and the well being of all of our families will be determined upon whether we deal with this crisis or not. Since the 1990’s world governments have chosen not to address this situation but have instead preferred to leave it to private companies to deal with it. Unfortunately these companies have often had their own business agendas, which have complicated matters. However now the problems are too great to ignore and so the fragmented approaches to the management of freshwater urgently needs to be revised and this fresh approach needs to include safeguarding the hydrological cycle from a far more holistic perspective.
“The hydrological cycle is the life-blood of many of the organisms that inhabit the Earth. At the same time it is, in many ways, the engine of the climate system. Human activities are now influencing the cycle at the global scale.” Download: W. Steffen et al., Global Change and the Earth System, A Planet Under Pressure, 2004.pdf
Therefore we need to think past our taps and consider how fresh water reaches us. We also need to gain an understanding of the nature of the global water cycle and the part that it plays in the functioning of all our weather patterns and the overall global climate. At present it is in serious danger of breakdown. However there is still a strong chance that it can be repaired. The remedy to this problem is based upon ecosystem restoration, inter-linkages and conservation. The crucial point is that this needs to be applied as fast as possible.
“Accordingly, the global water cycle is an issue of central concern in the USA
and in every other country of the world. The needs for adequate supplies of clean water pose major challenges to social and economic development and to the management of natural resources and ecosystems. These challenges grow ever greater as variations and changes in climate alter the hydrologic cycle in ways that are currently unpredictable. Therefore we need to think past our taps and consider how fresh water reaches us. We also need to gain an understanding of the nature of the global water cycle and the part that it plays in the functioning of all our weather patterns and the overall global climate. At present it is in serious danger of breakdown. However there is still a strong chance that it can be repaired. The remedy to this problem is based upon ecosystem restoration, inter-linkages and conservation. The crucial point is that this needs to be applied as fast as possible.” (View PDF: USGCRP, Draft White Paper, Chapter 7, ‘The Global Water Cycle and its Role in Climate and Global Change’, 2002.Pdf)
Freshwater is carried around the Earth, above and below the surface, via a cycle known as the water cycle or hydrological cycle. It is utterly dependent upon healthily functioning ecosystems such as mountains, glaciers, mountain forests, rain forests and wetlands. Mountains on the other side of the world help to regulate the freshwater supply and climate wherever we are. In this respect Himalayan mountain ecosystems affect the fresh water supply and weather of the whole world. Provided that there is an adequate quantity of these necessary ecosystems, freshwater is a fast renewable unlike resources such as coal, oil and gas. One of the marvels of the water cycle is that it has the ability of cycling water around the world very quickly. However it cannot function adequately if the ecosystem inter-linkages are missing.
These crucial ecosystems have been and are being massively depleted worldwide. This along with the privatisation of water is threatening all life on Earth
We need to consider what will happen if this cycle ceases to function, what it is dependent upon and co-operate together on a global level to preserve the natural ecosystems, which sustain it.
“Earth’s vegetation plays a pivotal role in the global water balance.” Download: Dieter Gerten et al. Terrestrial vegetation and water balance—hydrological evaluation of a dynamic global vegetation model, 2004.pdf
Regardless of where in the world we live, our stability is based on the state of ecosystems, which are both regional and global. This is why worldwide social and ecological co-operation is so essential. There is an urgent need nowadays for humanity to work together to protect the ecosystems which maintain the global water cycle, while we still have time to do so. On 22/3/13 the UN Secretary General stated:
“One in three people already lives in a country with moderate to high water stress, and by 2030 nearly half the global population could be facing water scarcity, with demand outstripping supply by 40 per cent.” View: UN Secretary-General’s Message for World Water Day 2013
Why are we having major water problems on a planet with so much water?
When one hears about the vast numbers of people around the world living with water crisis and inadequate access to safe drinking water, one may find it hard to understand, considering that there is so much water on the surface of Earth. Although water covers more than three quarters of the Earth’s surface, only approximately 3% of it is fresh water. Of this, approximately 2% is found in ice caps and glaciers and 1% in underground sources, rivers, streams, lakes and the atmosphere. This unique combination of the three phases of water works as an interrelated, dynamic, regenerative system and provides sufficient freshwater for all, so long as the forests and vegetation, which are a vital part of its functioning are not destroyed.
“There is abundant evidence that changes in land cover and land use can have significant, even drastic impacts on the water cycle at local and regional scales.” (WUSGCRP Report, ‘A Plan for a New Science Initiative on the Global Water Cycle, 2001)
The global water cycle, describes the continuous movement of water on, above and below the surface of the Earth.
Water is constantly changing between being a liquid, vapour or ice. Although the balance of water on Earth remains fairly constant over time,water molecules are constantly moving, in and out of the atmosphere. The proper functioning of this cycle is dependent upon and regulated by a combination of ecosystems that are fundamental for maintaining it.
Even with the immense body of knowledge, which is widely available, these ecosystems are still being destroyed on a vast scale. According to the FAO during the 1990s, 16 millions hectares of forest were cleared annually and between the years 2000 and 2010 around 130 million hectares of the Earth’s forests were lost.
““The current pace and scale of human development is altering the hydrological cycle in ways that has eroded the capacity of ecosystems to provide life-sustaining functions and services. Rivers that for centuries ran from source to sea now run dry in many years due to damming, diversion and depletion of glaciers and water resources.” Download: U.N Water Security.pdf
As a consequence of such vast destruction of biodiversity nearly all of life on Earth is presently being subjected to and threatened by the same looming freshwater crisis. This is regardless of status or species. It’s just a matter of time and there is not so much time left in which to deal with this emergency. This is a far greater threat to life and the very foundations of human existence than any economic crisis.
“The centrality of water in our lives—social, economic, political and spiritual—cannot be overestimated. Nearly every decision we make is directly linked to the use and availability of water. Water quality reveals everything, right or wrong, that we do. Its abundance is an indicator of social development. Its lack is an indicator of poverty” “Unlike the energy crisis, the water crisis is life-threatening. Unlike oil, fresh water has no viable substitute. Its depletion in quantity and quality has profound social, economic and ecological effects. Water is a particularly vital resource. Without water, ecosystems are destroyed. Economic activities halt. People die.” Download: UNEP, Water policy and strategy, 2000.pdf
Nowadays it is clear that most of the crises, which threaten humanity and other species, are not isolated to specific countries or regions.
“The cycle of water through the land, atmosphere, and oceans is intimately tied to the Earth’s climate through processes such as latent heat exchange and the radiative effects of water in its vapor, liquid, and solid phases. Water, and its cycling in the Earth system, is critical for human populations and ecosystems. The National Climate Assessment process is clearly identifying changes in the timing and availability of water as central to an understanding of the effects of climate change.” (View: USGCRP, ‘Our Changing Planet’, 2001.Pdf)
They are effected by and affect the environmental conditions in other regions and countries. That is why, preserving and maintaining freshwater and vital ecosystems, needs to be done through global cooperation and collaboration. Issues such as the environment, water security, food security, economics, energy and social care are not separate. They need to be addressed in a manner that recognizes the inherent connection between them.
“These are not separate crises: an environmental crisis, a development crisis, an energy crisis. They are all one.” Download: Our-Common-Future-Brundtland-Report-1987.pdf
Unless adequate solutions are applied, poverty, hunger, inequality and conflict will inevitably increase.
This will not only happen in developing countries, it will also happen in places, which are presently enjoying relative stability. This will not only happen to poor people, although they will experience the problems more acutely initially. This is a worldwide situation and it needs concerted global action.
Recognising the vital importance of this for global water security and all that it entails, world governments have recently committed themselves to action.
In Goal 6 under Target 6.6 ‘Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ world governments made the following commitment:
“By 2020, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes” Download: UN, Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,2015.pdf
This is a matter of survival so it would be in our best long-term interest to make this issue a top priority at national and international levels and undertake the work that needs to be done.
“Understanding the role the hydrologic cycle plays in key planetary processes is essential to our nation and societies around the world. It is becoming increasingly clear that one of the most significant challenges of the coming century will be to ensure the availability of an adequate supply of water for the world, particularly in light of potential changes in that supply due to climate variability, climate change and other natural and anthropogenic influences.” ( National Science Foundation Arlington, Virginia 2223, 2003)