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Water crisis to threaten 5 billion people globally by 2050: WMO

An estimated five billion people will face inadequate access to water at least a month, every year by 2050 as melting snow, ice and glaciers threaten water security, according to a UN report.

HQ Team

October 12, 2023: An estimated five billion people will face inadequate access to water at least a month, every year by 2050 as melting snow, ice and glaciers threaten water security, according to a UN report.

“The hydrological cycle is spinning out of balance as a result of climate change and human activities,” according to a new report from the World Meteorological Organization. “Droughts and extreme rainfall events are wreaking a heavy toll on lives and economies.”

“And yet, far too little is known about the true state of the world’s freshwater resources. We cannot manage what we do not measure,” the WMO State of Global Water Resources 2022 report, stated s it called for a fundamental policy shift.

The WMO report highlighted the influence of climate, environmental, and societal changes on water availability.

“Glaciers and ice cover are retreating before our eyes,” said WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas. 

Lack of accurate data

Rising temperatures have accelerated – and also disrupted – the water cycle. 

“A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. We are seeing much heavier precipitation episodes and flooding. And at the opposite extreme, more evaporation, dry soils and more intense droughts,” he says.

“The overwhelming majority of disasters are water-related and so water management and monitoring lies at the heart of the global Early Warnings For All initiative.

“Not a single country had timely and accurate hydrological data available to support evidence-based decision making and early action,” Prof Taalas said.

Currently, 3.6 billion people face inadequate access to water at least a month per year, according to UN-Water.

Water reservoirs dip

The world must improve monitoring, data-sharing, cross-border collaboration and assessments of water resources – and an accompanying increase in investments to facilitate this, according to the report.

In 2022, over 50% of the global catchment areas experienced deviations from normal river discharge conditions. 

More than 60% of major water reservoirs saw below or normal inflow, which provides a challenge for providing water to all users in an increasingly variable climate.

Throughout 2022, anomalies in soil moisture and evaporation echoed those in river discharge conditions. 

Europe saw increased evaporation and decreased soil moisture and river flows during the summer because of a major heatwave and drought. This led to challenges in agriculture and a shutdown of power plants due to the lack of cooling water.

Third Pole

The Third Pole, encompassing the Tibetan Plateau, the Himalayas, the Karakorum, the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, and the Tien Shan Mountains, is vital for almost 2 billion people’s water supply. 

From 2000 to 2018, the total glacier mass balance decreased by more than 4%. “There has been a notable decrease in snow cover and a big increase in the volume of glacial lakes.

“This has impacted river runoffs at the Indus, Amu Darya, Yangtze and Yellow River basins, indicating climate change’s evolving influence on the region.”

In 2022, the snow cover in the Alps, crucial for feeding major rivers like the Rhine, Danube, Rhone, and Po, remained much lower than average. 

The European Alps witnessed unprecedented levels of glacier mass loss.

Winter snow declines

The subtropical Andes experienced a consistent decline in winter snow accumulation since 2009, impacting water supplies for cities across Chile and the west of Argentina. 

Although 2022 saw slightly above-average snow in some areas, key watersheds still reported below-average conditions, especially on the Argentinean side, leading to sustained water restrictions in populous urban centres.

Severe droughts impacted many parts of Europe in the summer of 2022, posing transportation challenges in rivers like the Danube and Rhine and disrupting nuclear electricity production in France due to the lack of cooling water.

Navigation on the Mississippi River in the US was affected by the extremely low water levels, as a result of a continuous drought in the US.

In South America, the La Plata River basin has endured a continuation of drought conditions since 2020. 

“This caused a significant drop in hydropower production in 2022, resulting from low river flows. There were several instances of no water supply in Paraguay during 2022.”

Yangtze River Basin

Severe drought in the Yangtze River Basin in China led to much lower than average river discharge, inflow to reservoirs, and soil moisture.

A prolonged drought led to a major humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. By contrast, the Niger Basin and much of South Africa recorded above-average river discharge, linked to major flood events in 2022.

A mega flood hit the Indus River Basin in Pakistan, killing at least 1,700, affecting 33 million and causing an estimated more than $30 billion in economic losses. 

There was a lack of accessible verified hydrological data. “Africa, the Middle East and Asia, in particular, have too little available observational data.

“There is an urgent need for investments in monitoring and data sharing in accordance with the WMO Unified Data Policy.”

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