Demand for water is rising; study shows drinking water at risk from climate change

"Immediate action is required to safeguard the future of the world’s most important and vulnerable water towers."

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Image Credit: Matthew Paley/National Geographic

Water supply is at risk for a quarter of the world’s population. A new international study found that the population is facing a mountain water shortage at the hands of climate change.

Mountain glaciers, snow-packs and alpine lakes are all vulnerable to global warming and the rising dependence of ecosystems and society alike. These natural “water towers” have an unlikely chance to sustain the current climate crisis, according to the study published in Nature. (Water tower is a term the authors use to describe mountain ecosystems, which supply a substantial part of both natural and anthropogenic water demands.)

The study assessed each of the 78 natural water towers “in terms of their water-supplying role and the downstream dependence of ecosystems and society” and found that their “vulnerability related to water stress, governance, hydropolitical tension and future climatic and socio-economic changes” will have a profound affect.

“We conclude that the most important water towers are also among the most vulnerable, and that climatic and socio-economic changes will affect them profoundly. “

The Indus water tower is the most vulnerable, yet the most important to the world, researchers found, because it sustains societal demands in Pakistan, India, China and Afghanistan fed by the Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Ladakh and Himalayan mountains. Providing water to 200 million people, the Indus water tower is fed by the Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Ladakh and Himalayan mountain, EcoWatch reported.

While water towers in Asia are the most vulnerable to climate change, various others throughout the world are just as much at risk. In North America the most important water towers are Fraser in British Columbia, the Columbia and Northwest U.S., the Pacific and Arctic coasts, the Nelson in Canada and the Colorado in North America, according to BBC News.

“Immediate action is required to safeguard the future of the world’s most important and vulnerable water towers.”

According to the study, if temperatures rise to 1.9 degrees Celsius this century, rainfall increases just 2 percent and the population rises 50 percents, the water towers will unlikely sustain growing pressure.

“I think when we’ve talked about climate change and ice loss, a lot of the narrative has been around sea-level rise,” Dr. Bethan Davies, research team member from Royal Holloway, University of London said to the BBC. “But actually over the next 100 years, climate change is going to affect drinking water for people, water for power, water for agriculture—and in these water towers, we’re talking about the supply to about 1.9 billion people. That’s more than 20% of the world’s population. We need to adopt urgent mitigation strategies or we will face severe water shortages.”

Researchers said “immediate action is required” to protect water towers and a global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is necessary to keep global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to save 75 percent of the snow and ice, or else 80 percent will melt by 2100.

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