Climate Change and Water

On July 28, 2017, The Washington Post carried an article that caught many Americans off guard. While several of us have been focused on the soap opera in Washington, Italian government leaders have been dealing with a much more severe issue: water, or lack thereof. They announced on July 28 that two-thirds of the citizens in Rome are set to have their water reduced to just eight hours a day, effective immediately.

What is planned, at least right now, is a rolling blackout of water. While the water is being piped into one area of the city, it will be turned off in another. The goal is that each district involved will share the burden, but water will still be available somewhere nearby to deal with personal or city emergencies.

"Rome could be just the beginning," said Giampaolo Attanasio, a public infrastructure expert at the advisory firm Ernst & Young. "If the situation doesn’t improve, other large cities [around the world] will have to ration water as well. Small towns already have."

While a great deal of Rome's water is wasted as a result of ancient water infrastructure that, as one observer pointed out, leaks like a sieve, what most experts are pointing to as the main culprit is climate change. In 2017, Italy experienced the second-hottest Spring in more than 200 years. Further, Spring rainfall was only half the amount typically received.

At Lake Bracciano, where Rome gets most of its water, the lake is drying up at the rate of about half an inch per day. This means that each month, the water level goes down 15 inches.

Now, many of us might believe what is happening right now in Italy, and more specifically in Rome, is similar to the ups and downs in water supplies and precipitation that have occurred in California, Atlanta, and in a few other areas in the United States during the past few years. The state was unusually dry for almost five years, and then finally had enough rainfall last year to pull out of its drought.

However, signs indicate there is more going on in Italy than first meets the eye. According to ClimateChangePost, an organization based in The Netherlands that monitors precipitation and climate change around the world, from 1951 to 1996, Italy experienced a gradual decrease in rainfall amounts of about 14 percent. However, since then, this decline has accelerated and is now approaching 20 percent.

Direct Impacts
If trends continue, we can expect climate change to directly affect water in different ways around the globe. Some areas may have more water than they have ever had before. Their problem will be, among other things, floods, and finding ways to adequately channel and store water. But in other areas, it may be just the opposite: The water-rich areas of the globe may start becoming bone dry.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, among the ways climate change has been impacting water include the following:

  • As some areas become warmer than in the past, evaporation accelerates, reducing water supplies; "a warmer atmosphere can hold more water, roughly four percent more for every one-degree increase in temperature."
  • Some areas of the world will witness a precipitation shift. Instead of snow building up in mountainous regions that gradually melts and provides water for communities throughout the year, the snow is disappearing, being replaced by water. "This means greater water stress in summer [because the water has been lost to evaporation, poor storage or infrastructure, or has already been used], a trend already in evidence in parts of the western U.S."
  • It is not clear what impact climate change will have specifically on underground water sources, but what we do know: "rising water competition and stress at the surface are likely to drive greater use and overuse of this resource."
  • Because some areas of the world are receiving more rainfall than in the past, the runoff is gathering more sediment, pollutants, minerals, pathogens, as well as pesticides. This is polluting nearby streams and as it flows, polluting larger waterways which will impact vegetation, marine life, and work its way up the food chain.

However, what the scientists predict will be one of the starkest impacts climate change will have on water is the anticipated rise in sea levels around the globe. As sea levels rise, this will have unfortunate ramifications, including driving more salt water into freshwater streams and aquifers, which will endanger the water we are now using for drinking and irrigation for agriculture.

This all seems to point to a bleak future. However, there is still time to slow this process. Even if this country is no longer going to play a leadership role in dealing with environmental issues, what we see happening around the globe is more and more countries becoming much more focused on these matters. They see what is taking place in Italy and realize they may be next. Hopefully, they will help lead the way.

A frequent speaker and author on water conservation issues, Klaus Reichardt is founder and managing partner of Waterless Co. LLC, Vista, Calif. Reichardt founded the company in 1991 with the goal to establish a new market segment in the plumbing fixture industry with water efficiency in mind. The company's key product, the Waterless No-Flush urinal, works completely without water.

Posted on Aug 18, 2017

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