The State of the Planet: water crises everywhere

Newsflashes from around the planet picture the impact of the climate crisis as a diverse series of water crises.

In my previous newsletter, I sent a video message about water as an essential focus in any sustainable development policy. There is no development without water since there is no life without water; our body can't survive more than a few days without it. We also need water for practically all of our products, including most energy and food.

Unfortunately, many people in the developed world take fresh water for granted and are not aware that water is a human right. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation. It acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights.

We all learned at school that the ocean covers 71 percent of the earth's surface and that our planet is easily recognizable from space as the blue marble, but most of the water is in the ocean or frozen in the ice shields and glaciers. So if you could put all the world's liquid freshwater, including the Amazon River, Lake Michigan, and your local fish pond, in a giant round balloon, it would have a diameter of only 55 kilometers (34 miles).

Sustainable water policies

That makes water a limited resource. Therefore, we need sustainable policies to avoid depleting or polluting our water resources while ensuring everyone has enough clean water. This vast 55 kilometers imaginary balloon contains enough water for all of us. However, that is not the case; like food, energy, healthcare, money, and other essential ingredients for a good life, there is no equal access.

If there would be an annual 'State of the Planet' speech like national presidents like to do, key topics should not only include the climate crisis or the loss of nature; inequality should be addressed as well.

Water problems all over the planet

This morning, the news from around the planet reminded us of the importance of water against a background of the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and inequality.

In India, more than 20 percent of the land area is facing drought-like conditions. That is a considerable change compared to last year around this time when it was less than 8 percent. For example, Gujarat has so far this year seen a rainfall deficit of 48 percent. The failed monsoon and uneven distribution of rain are among the primary drivers behind the current situation.

Food crisis in Madagascar

In southern Madagascar, four consecutive years of drought have wiped out harvests and cut off people's access to food. As a result, more than a million people in the southern part of the island are food insecure. Experts predict that the crisis will drastically worsen now that the lean season starts, the time of year when food stocks run low.

Moving further to the west across the globe, we arrive in Europe, a continent plagued with heatwaves and wildfires around the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, further to the north, it was recently hit by devastating floods in Germany and Belgium. These are manifestations of extreme weather and a consequence of the climate crisis; the five warmest years in Europe have all been since 2014. Moreover, the continent experienced in 2020 its hottest year on record, according to yesterday's report by the American Meteorological Society. Last year, the average temperatures in Europe were 1,9 degrees Celsius above the 1981-2010 average. A benchmark period that is, of course, not even close to pre-industrial times.

Rain at the highest peak of Greenland

In my video message, I briefly spoke about Greenland, a vast island covered with ice that experiences dramatic changes because of climate change. The ice is now melting faster than at any time in the past 12,000 years, and new climatic conditions will strengthen this process further. The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Combined with other factors like higher humidity (as you can see in your shower: warmer air contains more water, it forms drops when the damp hits a colder surface like a window), snowfall is now more often replaced by rain. For the first time ever, people have seen rain on Greenland's highest peak. And that was not just a drizzle; it poured for hours.


Continuing our journey to the west, we see that there is also too much rain in parts of the United States. In the city of McEwen, 17 inches of rain fell in less than 24 hours; it likely broke the all-time 24-hour rainfall record for Tenessee. The severe flooding in parts of the middle of the state has left at least 19 people dead.

But moving further west across the U.S., we see another extreme caused by climate change: most of the American west experiences a historic multi-year drought. As a sign of times, the Joshua trees, an icon for the southwestern United States deserts, need protection. Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition under California's Endangered Species Act to protect Joshua trees. This tree that has existed in the Mojave Desert for 2.5 million years now has the dubious honor to be the first plant species in California to be protected due to the threats posed by the climate crisis.

Colorado River

Never before did the U.S. government declare a water shortage in the Colorado River. But now they had to, since the largest reservoir in the U.S., Lake Mead, is at its lowest level since it was formed nearly a century ago. Around 40 million people in Arizona, Nevada, California, and parts of Mexico rely on this reservoir's water. Officials estimate that the artificial lake will be at only 34% of its capacity by the end of this year.

In 2018, I visited the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell; upstream of Lake Mead; it experienced similar water shortages. In a visiting center next to the dam, the displays had lots of data about costs and technical details. However, I looked in vain for any mentioning of the word climate change; it wasn't mentioned, not even once.

The first requirement for dealing with a catastrophe is to recognize the facts. I wonder how many more so-called natural disasters have to occur worldwide before the world realizes that business as usual has never been the solution to solve a crisis.

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