World Meteorological Organization Sharpens Warnings About Both Too Much and Too Little Water

With global warming intensifying the water cycle, floods and droughts are increasing, and many countries are unprepared.

Members of the Mexican Army evacuate patients of the IMSS Hospital in Tula de Allende, Hidalgo state, Mexico, on Sept. 7, 2021. Credit: Francisco Villeda/AFP via Getty Images

Members of the Mexican Army evacuate patients of the IMSS Hospital in Tula de Allende, Hidalgo state, Mexico, on Sept. 7, 2021. Credit: Francisco Villeda/AFP via Getty Images

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The global supply of fresh water is dropping by almost half an inch annually, the World Meteorological Organization warned in a report released this week. By 2050, about 5 billion people will have inadequate access to water at least one month per year, the report said.

Overall, global warming is intensifying the planet’s water cycle, with an increase of 134 percent in flood-related disasters since 2000, while the number and duration of droughts has grown by 29 percent over the same period. Most of the deaths and economic losses from floods are in Asia, while Africa is hardest hit by drought.

“The water is draining out of the tub in some places, while it’s overflowing in others,” said Maxx Dilley, director of the WMO Climate Programme. “We’ve known about this for a long time. When scientists were starting to get a handle on what climate change was going to mean, an acceleration of the hydrological cycle was one of the things that was considered likely.” 

Researchers are seeing the changes to the hydrological cycle in its impacts as well as in the data, Dilley said.

“And it’s not just climate,” he said. “Society plays a major role, with population growth and development. At some point these factors are really going to come together in a way that is really damaging. This summer’s extremes were early warnings.”

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In the United States, there have been 64 flood and drought disasters since 1980, which cost upwards of $427 billion, or 21.5 percent of the total cost of the country’s climate-related catastrophes compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Globally, the WMO estimates that, between 1970 and 2019, there were 11,072 disasters related to weather, water and other climate-related hazards, resulting in 2.06 million deaths and $3.6 trillion in economic losses. About 70 percent of the deaths associated with climate-related hazards were in the world’s least developed countries.

Many Countries Falling Short

The report also found that many countries are not prepared to handle the surge in water-related extremes, particularly developing regions in the Global South. 

“There is a long, long history of attempts to improve early warning systems for impacts to agriculture and food security, but the water sector is underserved,” Dilley said. “There are a series of water variables, like groundwater and river discharge, that aren’t being observed.”

Global warming intensifies water-related extremes in several ways. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, which can fuel more intense rainfall, including from tropical storms. For example, recent research shows that warming will intensify rain from moist streams of air called atmospheric rivers, which already cause most flood damage in the Western United States. 

Other studies show how changes to regional ocean currents and wind patterns also can intensify extremes. In 2016, researchers found that boundary currents, running parallel to the coast of several continents, are carrying 20 percent more energy than 50 years ago and fueling an increase of destructive flooding in some regions, including Asia, which was highlighted as one of the areas most at risk in the new WMO report.

In just the last year, extreme rainfall caused massive flooding in Japan, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan and India, WMO General Secretary Petteri Taalas said Tuesday, as the report was released.

“Millions of people were displaced, and hundreds were killed,” he said. “But it is not just in the developing world that flooding has led to major disruption. Catastrophic flooding in Europe led to hundreds of deaths and widespread damage.”

At the same time, he added, lack of water is also a major concern, especially in Africa, where more than 2 billion people live in water-stressed countries and don’t have access to safe drinking water and sanitation. 

“More than 60 percent of (WMO) members lack basic water information and management tools, including early warning systems to cope with increases in water-related disasters,” he added. “We need to wake up to the looming water crisis.”

The WMO report found that in 2020, 3.6 billion people lacked safely managed sanitation services like disposal of human waste, and 2.3 billion lacked basic hygiene services, like washrooms in hospitals, factories and kitchens. It also found that in more than 60 percent of the 193 member countries, the agencies tasked with providing basic water information didn’t have the resources to adequately do that job. 

In 40 of the 101 countries assessed by the WMO, basic hydrological variables like stream flows and groundwater were not adequately monitored, and in 67 of them, the data wasn’t adequately shared with the agencies that needed it. A third of the countries lacked river flood forecasts and alerts, while more than half had inadequate drought forecasting and early warnings or lacked them altogether. 

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The main obstacles to effectively gathering, distributing and using water and climate-related information include limited government financing and budgets and a lack of institutional expertise and personnel to address water issues, said Joseph Intsiful, a climate and early warning systems specialist with the Green Climate Fund, which is stepping up efforts to develop early warning systems to reduce the impacts of climate extremes.

Some progress is being made in other areas, said Mikko Ollikainen, with the Adaptation Fund, a global finance partnership that has committed $850 million since 2010 to help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change. Its recent water-related projects include boosting early warning systems for floods and droughts in the nation of Georgia, restoring traditional irrigation channels in Morocco and diversifying agriculture in Chile to make food supplies more resilient to water extremes, he said.

The WMO report calls for more investment in integrated water management to better manage water stress, especially in undeveloped island countries and the world’s least developed countries. The most immediate short-term needs it identified include drought and flood early warning systems, as well as basic data collection for important water information. 

Dilley said the urgency of WMO’s warning is reinforced by the recent science report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which also identified an increase of water cycle extremes as one of the biggest global warming threats.

“There is really almost like a sense of panic that there really isn’t much more time,” he said. “The recent report that came out kind of set that tone. These are scientific reports. They are not emotional, but you could see the sense of urgency on nearly every page. The feeling is, it’s time to do something. It’s now or never.”

But the slow onset of some climate impacts remains a stumbling block, he acknowledged, because many people don’t feel the impacts until it’s too late to stop them.

“That’s the insidious thing about climate change,” he said. “Getting this scientific information out there as a basis for action is the antidote. If you get to the point where there is no water left, it’s too late. Actions have to occur decades before you reach that point.”