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Kate Zerrenner headshot

The Top Water Takeaways From the IPCC Report

By Kate Zerrenner
Water - Aerial shot of river forest and rural highway

Climate and water are inextricably linked. Yet conversations and reporting about the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability tend to hide it in the findings. A closer look at the IPCC report shows that water touches every component of climate impacts, from agriculture to mental health, infectious diseases to infrastructure. 

The impact climate change is already having on water is significant and, unsurprisingly, falls disproportionately on low-income and marginalized communities. But data is also inconsistent and inadequate for many sectors and regions. Unfortunately, this is not a new problem, but in order to best understand the impacts and prepare adaptive and resilient responses, it is one that has to be addressed.   

Over half of all disasters since the 1970s involved water, according to the IPCC report. And that's not all. 

The IPCC report defines "disasters" as extreme weather events coupled with high vulnerability and exposure to communities. Over half of these events since the 1970s involved water, with an estimated 44 percent being flood-related and a further 7 percent drought-related, according to the report. Drought disasters alone accounted for 34 percent of all disaster-related deaths over that time period, especially in Africa.

Further, nearly half a billion people live in “unfamiliarly wet areas,” while 163 million live in “unfamiliarly dry areas.” Many of the areas now facing increasingly hot and dry temperatures, which also accelerates evaporation, are also seeing lower levels of groundwater. 

These changes affect global patterns of soil moisture, which has consequences for agriculture, ecosystems, and the ability to literally weather extreme storms. The implication is that systems — both natural and manmade — are ill-equipped to handle the changes already underway due to climate change. The 270 authors authors of the IPCC report note that these changes “disproportionately impact vulnerable populations such as the poor, women, children, Indigenous peoples and the elderly in all locations."

The impacts to agriculture are particularly stark: Between 1983 and 2009, approximately three-quarters of the global harvested area saw yield losses because of drought, costing the world an estimated $166 billion.

Cities are also on the frontlines. Urban expansion and shifting rainfall patterns could cause about 30 percent of all major cities globally to run out of water by 2050. Increasingly intense and shortened flood and drought cycles also increase wear and tear on already-stressed water infrastructure. Coastal cities, in particular will see the impacts on their infrastructure. The report estimates between $7 trillion and $14 trillion worth of coastal infrastructure assets will be exposed by the end of the century, which will affect not just water infrastructure, but also power production and housing. 

Adaptation requires better data

Many impacts have adaptive solutions, but they will require significant — and often targeted — investments, such as technical assistance and access to equipment for drought-resistance crops and irrigation. The provisions in the U.S. infrastructure law that passed last fall are only a drop in the bucket of what is needed, but a good first start. In addition to shoring up pipes and dams, investment in technologies like smart water systems, water recycling, and energy-water nexus solutions, including floatovoltaics and energy-efficient and renewable-energy powered desalination, will be required.

But targeted adaptation will also require good data to know how to prioritize investment. While the IPCC report has robust data on impacts like soil moisture levels, several of the impact areas have low- to medium-level confidence or lack sufficient data. This is particularly noticeable in water impacts for coastal cities. Considering how vulnerable these communities are to extreme weather events, the lack of sufficient data is notable. Further, virtually every region, including North America, has only medium confidence in the attribution of climate change to impacts. 

The time to act is now

The water sector is notoriously localized, but local effects can spillover into regional or national impacts. Strengthening the available data within and between water basins would help planners determine how best to spend investment dollars, both to minimize risk and protect the most vulnerable populations and systems.

The key takeaway from the most recent IPCC report is that we have a “rapidly closing window” to act. Many communities are already dealing with climate-related impacts, often further hindered by crumbling infrastructure and multi-tiered regulation that makes better data collection and dissemination challenging. It is, however, not an insurmountable problem. More climate tech companies have begun to develop technical solutions to address the water impacts of climate change. 

Water is humanity’s most basic necessity. When there is too much or not enough or access is unreliable and unpredictable, it can fire up a panic response. The interconnectedness of water requires precision. To address the impacts laid out in the IPCC report, better data must be a priority.

Image credit: Fabio Santaniello Bruun and Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner