In 2021, water crises took center stage. Here's how we can adapt

Sunrise over Lake Superior, which holds 10% of the planet's surface fresh water. Image: J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

Brett Walton
Reporter, Circle of Blue
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Fresh Water

  • Extreme events such as droughts and floods are happening more often and almost worldwide.
  • Disasters are multifaceted and becoming unlikely to slow.
  • A greater sense of urgency is needed to combat the world's water problems.

Too much. Too little. Too polluted.

For years these compact phrases, mantra-like in their repetition, have come to define the world’s water problems.

Now add a fourth: too frequent.

If nothing else, the last 12 months of floods, fires, droughts, and other meteorological torments delivered an uncomfortable message. Extreme events are happening more often. And they are happening almost everywhere.

Have you read?

A year of water crises

Communities rich and poor bore witness to horrific devastation in 2021. In July, floods in China’s Henan province trapped commuters in subway tunnels in the city of Zhengzhou, which received a year’s rainfall in just three days. That same month, raging waters in Germany’s Ahr Valley scoured farmland into canyons and submerged riverside towns. Herders in northern Kenya today are lamenting the decimation of their livestock as seasonal rains failed yet again to nourish the ochre earth.

One positive trend is that severe weather is not as deadly as it was generations ago. Thanks to superior weather forecasting, early warning systems, insurance schemes, and an established network of international aid agencies, the initial blow from a flood or drought is less lethal. With advance warning, residents can find safe ground. Death tolls are typically measured in the hundreds instead of the tens of thousands.

The pain is instead distributed in other ways. Homes washed away. Dry wells. Persistent hunger after failed harvests and reliance on food aid. Rebuilding again and again like this is wearying. People on the Louisiana Gulf Coast and the Sahel, in central Africa, have come to see their homelands as places of danger. Some want to move. Their neighbors may already have.

The Au Sable River in Northern Michigan. Image: J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

Climate change brings water disasters

In northern Kenya, cattle carcasses putrefy on sunbaked ground, casualties of the region’s unforgiving drought. In British Columbia, a convoy of moisture-rich storms in November encircled the region with landslides and floods, cutting off major road and rail corridors that will take months to repair.

Across the American West, intense heat and meager precipitation produced tinderbox conditions. Water systems were at the center of the story. Lake Oroville, the second-largest reservoir in California, dropped to a record low, too depleted to generate hydropower. Wells across the region dried up, fish and birds perished, marinas closed, algae outbreaks intensified, and wildfires scorched forests and homes.

This year the Colorado River basin’s unforgiving math – too many promises of water and too little actual water – began to hit home. Lakes Mead and Powell, the country’s largest reservoirs, hit record lows. Nevada lawmakers banned ornamental grass – the sort that fills median strips and surrounds shopping centers – in the Las Vegas area. The federal government declared a first-ever Tier 1 shortage, which meant mandatory water cuts for Arizona and Nevada.

The events of 2021 are likely to be a prelude for sterner tasks ahead. The Colorado River is overallocated. The region is drying. Though residents are trying to use less water, they can’t live with none.

Each hazard, in its own way, exposed the vulnerabilities of water systems to climate shocks. In February, the Texas freeze, which extended into Louisiana and Mississippi, caused pipes to burst and left millions without water for several days. The water system in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, was so deeply damaged from the event that it had a boil-water advisory in place for a month.

Academics refer to incidents like these as “compounding” disasters – when, for example, a power outage cripples a wastewater plant that then floods rivers and streets with untreated sewage. Or when heavy rains wash sediment and debris from a fire scorched hillside into a reservoir, clogging a utility’s drinking water intake.

These extreme events are also an economic risk. Countries that rely on hydropower for a large portion of their electricity can face shortages when rains fail. It happened this year in Brazil, where low reservoirs caused hydropower generation to plunge. Power companies turned instead to natural gas – but also displayed new interest in wind and solar.

The pace of such multifaceted disasters is unlikely to slow. People continue to move into risky terrain, while aging infrastructure and misguided land developments, like draining and paving flood-buffering wetlands, prove inadequate to the moment.

“We are creating risk even faster than we can mitigate it,” Alessandra Jerolleman, an assistant professor of emergency management at Jacksonville State University, told Circle of Blue. “Even if we didn’t have climate as a compounding factor.”

How to adapt to water crises

With the realities of a warming planet becoming clearer, communities are learning they cannot duck every punch. How to absorb some blows and bounce back is part of the renewed emphasis on adaptation.

Some adaptations result in physical changes. A small town in Illinois changed its development patterns after being flooded one time too many. Cape Town, three years after its Day Zero close call, is restoring native forests in the watersheds that feed its reservoirs so that it can avoid another water crisis. In the wastewater sector, technological changes -- from equipment that captures the energy in sewage to sensors that monitor sewer system capacity and reduce the risk of overflows - could transform the profession.

Limiting the damage from a fevered planet was the goal of a U.N. climate summit in November. Negotiators made incremental progress in Glasgow, but the world’s carbon trajectory is still off course for keeping the global average temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above what it was two centuries ago.

Coming out of the summit, climate campaigners accused political leaders of another compact phrase – of being too timid. Low carbon energy plans could be deployed quicker. More money could flow to poorer countries to aid adaptation to severe storms. Fossil fuel subsidies could be ratcheted down. Carbon trapping forests and wetlands could be protected from plows and shovels.

Without a greater sense of urgency this decade, the hill to climb becomes much steeper. Future leaders don’t want to find themselves adding another phrase to the list: too late.

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