The story of climate change is a story of water – how much of it falls from the sky and where, whether it falls as rain or snow, and how fast it melts and evaporates once it’s on the ground.

Climate change affects all of these things, essentially re-distributing water around the planet.

Journalists who cover the impacts of climate change on water, here in the U.S. and around the world, have a lot of ground to cover. There’s no shortage of reporting on the topic, however, and there are plenty of excellent resources for learning about the issue.

One of the latest studies to address the warming/water issue came from the European Union. On Monday, March 10, numerous news outlets reported on warnings from senior foreign policy officials Javier Solana and Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

Overburdening Already-Stressed States, Regions

Their report, presented at an EU summit in Brussels March 13-14, follows similar assessments in the U.S. about how climate change may threaten national and regional security. The EU report warns specifically that “the core challenge is that climate change threatens to overburden states and regions which are already fragile and conflict-prone,” The Guardian reported.

It doesn’t take a very large leap in imagination to conclude that the EU’s worries are shared also in America – and many of them are related to potential conflicts and strife over water. Among the more alarming warnings reported in The Guardian‘s coverage of the report was that continued warming is expected to reduce the availability of fresh water in some regions by 30 percent, devastating crops and fueling unrest. Trouble spots include:

  • North Africa and the Sahel, where 75 percent of arable rain-fed land could be lost in coming decades;
  • Central Asia, where Kyrgyzstan has lost 1,000 glaciers over the past 40 years and Tajikistan’s glaciers have shrunk by one-third – threatening farming and power generation;
  • The Middle East, where about two-thirds of the Arab world depends on water sources from beyond its borders; and
  • South Asia, where a billion people rely on the Himalaya’s dwindling glaciers.

Internal worries over water resources have been reported across the globe:

  • On March 10, National Public Radio aired a story about the demise of tropical glaciers throughout the Andes in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. The glaciers’ decline is threatening supplies of drinking water, irrigation for farms and power generation.
  • On March 7, Canwest News Service in Canada reported on a forthcoming 500-page report from Canadian scientists that warns that retreating glaciers and losses in snow pack threaten water shortages in British Columbia, that prairie provinces will continue to struggle with drought, and that urban areas may have to cope with water rationing.
  • China’s two biggest rivers are seeing lower water levels compared with 40 years ago because warming temperatures are drying up the wetlands that feed them, the Associated Press reported in July.

Last August, reporter Doug Struck with The Washington Post wrote a wide-ranging report about how continued warming is expected to worsen conflicts over water. The report took readers from Fresno to the Peruvian Andes to the Middle East and on to China.

Struck’s article quotes Richard Seager, a senior researcher at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, whose computer models have made the startling prediction that sometime before 2050, the southwest United States will be locked in a drought that will rival the Great Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

‘Things that used to work aren’t going to work’

Newspapers across western states paid particular attention to two studies published in Science in February.

One study published in the journal on February 22 estimated that greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels have driven up to 60 percent of the warming trends seen in the earlier timing of peak flows of snow melt in rivers, higher winter temperatures and declining snow pack.

“It’s statistically quite clear that we’re seeing a signal that you would not expect from natural variability,” said Dan Cayan, a study author and climate researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

“All of these things add up to a pretty clear picture of the early signs of climate warming.”

Another study, published in Science on February 1, argued that the West’s approach to storing and managing water no longer works because it is based on a regional climate that no longer exists. Continued warming temperatures, causing more rain and less snow, demand new strategies to managing water in the West, the authors maintained.

“We have built all of our infrastructure to maximize the world as we know it,” Scripps researcher Tim Barnett told the Arizona Republic when the studies were published. “As long as the climate system stays the same, then we’ve optimized the system. But it’s not going to stay the same. Things that used to work aren’t going to work.”

Barnett’s comments would also apply to the California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where freshwater rivers flow toward San Francisco Bay and mingle with seawater from the Pacific. The delta is the hub of the state’s water distribution system, which provides water to about two-thirds of Californians and millions of acres of farm land.

As the world warms, however, rising seas threaten to inundate freshwater supplies in the delta. Earlier spring runoff in the Sierra, meanwhile, could cause flooding that would force the evacuation of thousands of people.

Rising seas pose other unexpected threats to coastal areas around the world, ScienceDaily reported in November. Researchers at Ohio State University in that study estimated that rising seas could intrude into freshwater aquifers as seawater penetrates underground. The study suggested that seawater could extend 50 percent farther underground than it does above ground.

Coastal areas along the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico (particularly Florida and Louisiana), and in areas of Southeast Asia, the Middle East and northern Europe are at risk.

“The coastlines that are vulnerable are some of the most densely populated regions of the world,” said Motomu Ibaraki, who led the study at Ohio State.

Melting glaciers, droughts, waterways and aquifers fouled by seawater – all of it threatens to be a source of misery and conflict over the 21st century.

With more than a billion people lacking access to safe drinking water and an estimated 2.6 billion people without proper sanitation, climate change could make a bad situation much worse.

Below are some Web links to more information about climate change and water issues.

IPCC Fourth Assessment

Working Group II Report: “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”

Chapter 3: Fresh Water Resources and their Management

National Center for Atmospheric Research

Home Page for Kathleen Miller

Environmental & Social Impacts Group: Climate Change and Water Resources

United States Environmental Protection Agency

Water Resources

Pacific Institute


An interesting blog and news aggregator on water issues in California

California Applications Project at the University of California

A joint project between UC San Diego and UC Berkeley to study the impact of climate change in the western United States.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...