THIS WEEK a lethal heatwave has broken records across Europe, and more than a 100 million people were under a severe heat warning in the United States. These are among the kinds of climatic events highlighted by a Christian Aid report last year (Scorched Earth) which showed how the climate crisis is increasing the severity of drought in ten of the world’s major cities.
Despite covering more than 70 per cent of the earth’s surface, only three per cent of the world’s water is suitable for drinking. Of this fresh water, 70 per cent is locked in glaciers and ice caps. Less than 0.01 per cent of all fresh water worldwide is available for human use in lakes, rivers and reservoirs. Despite this, Christian Aid analysis shows global water use grew at more than twice the rate of population increases over the course of the 20th century.
Even in the UK, London has experienced heatwaves in recent years and the CEO of the Environment Agency, James Bevan, warned that within 25 years London and the South East of England could run out of water. The cost of a severe drought to London’s economy is estimated by Thames Water to be £330 million per day, and would have severe economic, social and environmental consequences. The Environment Agency has said that by 2050 some rivers will see 50 to 80 per cent less water during the summer months.
Christian Aid’s Climate Justice Policy Lead, Illari Aragon, said: “The heatwaves currently afflicting three different continents are a sign that we are already living in a climate crisis and there is worse to come if we don’t act faster to cut emissions and provide better support to vulnerable communities.
“For many in some of the poorest countries this level of heat is unbearable and they lack the resources and infrastructure to cope. Scientists have warned this kind of future was coming and it’s harrowing to see those predictions coming true. These record heatwaves need to be a wake up call for the world that we cannot carry on as we have been. We need a radical shift to get off fossil fuels and get vital funds to people suffering on the front line of climate breakdown.”
In 2018, after extended drought, Cape Town came within days of becoming the first major city in the world to run out of water. ‘Day Zero’, when the taps for 4 million inhabitants would be turned off, was averted after emergency measures were implemented to cut the city’s water usage by 50 per cent.
The ten cities featured in the report are Sydney, Harare, Sao Paulo, Phoenix, Beijing, Kabul, New Delhi, Cape Town, Cairo and London. The danger of city droughts are only set to get worse without action to address climate change. Currently, 55 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, with this set to rise to 68 per cent by 2050.
Without action to cut emissions and better management of freshwater resources, Christian Aid warns the toll will be felt acutely by the poor. According to the UN, lower-income city residents can pay up to 50 times more for a litre of water than their wealthier neighbours because they often have to buy from private vendors. Cities in poorer countries are also far more vulnerable than those in richer countries as they have fewer resources to adapt to the water shortages.
Dr Friederike Otto, Senior Lecturer in Climate Science at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, carried out a study into the 2018 drought in Cape Town. She added: “Changing rainfall and higher temperatures –the result of greenhouse gas emissions – are making drought more common and more severe in parts of the world. As we saw in Cape Town, when it nearly reached Day Zero in 2018, this can add up to catastrophic water shortages even for some major cities. Our study of that event found climate change made the drought about three times more likely to occur. Until net greenhouse gas emissions are halted, the risk of drought threatening cities’ water supply will keep growing.”
Graham Knott, a retired water and environmental engineer, said: “Lack of a reliable supply of clean water, made worse by the impacts of climate change, is affecting cities in many different ways. Higher temperatures, combined with the growing levels of demand from cities make our precious freshwater resources extremely vulnerable. Even London and the South East of England face water shortages in coming years if we don’t tackle climate change and adapt to its impacts by better managing our water resources and infrastructure.
“Set against this many cities have seen significant increases in damaging and fatal floods. Durban, South Africa, and even the desert cities of Saudi Arabia have recently suffered from significant flooding. Unchecked pollution of even the clean water we have makes things even worse. Without action and adaptation, climate change threatens to affect many things we currently take for granted.”
Mohamed Adow, Director of Nairobi-based climate and energy think tank, Power Shift Africa, said: “This is an important report which highlights the growing menace of urban drought. With more and more people living in cities, this is already becoming a major consequence of the climate crisis which will affect millions of people. Here in Africa we bear the brunt of this climate emergency, so we are acutely aware of the value and importance of water and what happens if we run out.”
The report also highlights the impact that drought is having in driving conflict, and in particular, in Crimea, the part of Ukraine annexed by Russia in 2014. The region is vulnerable to climate change and since the annexation Ukraine protested by diverting the North-Crimea Channel which provides 85 per cent of Crimea’s water, sparking tensions in Russia and with prominent politicians like Konstantin Zatulin calling for a more aggressive foreign policy towards Ukraine.
Research by the Pacific Institute has shown that conflicts over water, both within countries and between countries, are sharply increasing. In the 29 years between 1960-1989 there was 1.27 per year. But in the 27 years between 1990-2007 there was 4.61 per year.
* The Scorched Earth report is available to download here.
* Source: Christian Aid