Friday, May 24, 2013

Water Apocalypse Looming



Bonn Declaration issued by 500 scientists at 'Water in the Anthropocene' conference

A conference of 500 leading water scientists from around the world today issued a stark warning that, without major reforms, "in the short span of one or two generations, the majority of the 9 billion people on Earth will be living under the handicap of severe pressure on fresh water, an absolutely essential natural resource for which there is no substitute. This handicap will be self-inflicted and is, we believe, entirely avoidable."

This is an image of North America from the data visualization video "Water in the Anthropocene," to debut May 21 at gwsp.org and www.anthropocene.info.
Credit: gwsp.orgwww.anthropocene.info

The scientists bluntly pointed to chronic underlying problems led by mismanagement and sent a prescription to policy makers in a 1,000-word declaration issued at the end of a four-day meeting in Bonn, Germany, "Water in the Anthropocene," organized by the Global Water System Project.

A suite of disquieting global phenomena have given rise to the "Anthropocene," a term coined for a new geologic epoch characterized by humanity's growing dominance of the Earth's environment and a planetary transformation as profound as the last epoch-defining event -- the retreat of the glaciers 11,500 years ago.

And in Bonn, Germany May 21-24, world experts will experts will focus on how to mitigate key factors contributing to extreme damage to the global water system being caused while adapting to the new reality.

 Water in the Anthropocene from WelcomeAnthropocene on Vimeo.

"The list of human activities and their impact on the water systems of Planet Earth is long and important," Anik Bhaduri, Executive Officer of the Global Water System Project (GWSP).

"We have altered the Earth's climatology and chemistry, its snow cover, permafrost, sea and glacial ice extent and ocean volume—all fundamental elements of the hydrological cycle. We have accelerated major processes like erosion, applied massive quantities of nitrogen that leaks from soil to ground and surface waters and, sometimes, literally siphoned all water from rivers, emptying them for human uses before they reach the ocean. We have diverted vast amounts of freshwater to harness fossil energy, dammed major waterways, and destroyed aquatic ecosystems."

"The idea of the Anthropocene underscores the point that human activities and their impacts have global significance for the future of all living species -- ours included. Humans are changing the character of the world water system in significant ways with inadequate knowledge of the system and the consequences of changes being imposed. From a research position, human-water interactions must be viewed as a continuum and a coupled system, requiring interdisciplinary inquiry like that which has characterized the GWSP since its inception."

Among many examples of humanity's oversized imprint on the world, cited in a paper by James Syvitski, Chair of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and three fellow experts (in full: http://bit.ly/Yx4COp), and in a new "Water in the Anthropocene" video to debut in Bonn May 21 (available at gwsp.org and http://www.anthropocene.info):

This is an image of Europe from the data visualization video "Water in the Anthropocene," to debut May 21 at gwsp.org and www.anthropocene.info.

Credit: gwsp.org/ www.anthropocene.info

Humanity uses an area the size of South America to grow its crops and an area the size of Africa for raising livestock

Due to groundwater and hydrocarbon pumping in low lying coastal areas, two-thirds of major river deltas are sinking, some of them at a rate four times faster on average than global sea level is rising

More rock and sediment is now moved by human activities such as shoreline in-filling, damming and mining than by the natural erosive forces of ice, wind and water combined

Many river floods today have links to human activities, including the Indus flood of 2010 (which killed 2,000 people), and the Bangkok flood of 2011 (815 deaths)

On average, humanity has built one large dam every day for the last 130 years. Tens of thousands of large dams now distort natural river flows to which ecosystems and aquatic life adapted over millennia

Drainage of wetlands destroys their capacity to ease floods—a free service of nature expensive to replace

Evaporation from poorly-managed irrigation renders many of the world's rivers dry -- no water, no life. And so, little by little, tens of thousands of species edge closer to extinction every day.
 
Needed: Better water system monitoring and governance

The water community stresses that concern now extends far beyond 'classic' drinking water and sanitation issues and includes water quality and quantity for ecosystems at all scales.

Says GWSP co-chair Claudia Pahl-Wostl: "The fact is, as world water problems worsen, we lack adequate efforts to monitor the availability, condition and use of water -- a situation presenting extreme long term cost and danger."

"Human water security is often achieved in the short term at the expense of the environment with harmful long-term implications. The problems are largely caused by governance failure and a lack of systemic thinking in both developed and developing countries. Economic development without concomitant institutional development will lead to greater water insecurity in the long-term. Global leadership is required to deal with the water challenges of the 21st century."

This is an image of Africa from the data visualization video "Water in the Anthropocene," to debut May 21 at gwsp.org and www.anthropocene.info.

Credit: gwsp.org/ www.anthropocene.info

"Humanity changes the way water moves around the globe like never before, causing dramatic harm," says Bonn conference keynote speaker Joe Alcamo, Chief Scientist of the UN Environment Programme and former co-chair of the GWSP. "By diverting freshwater for agricultural, industrial and municipal use, for example, our coastal wetlands receive less and less, and often polluted, freshwater. The results include decreased inland and coastal biodiversity, increased coastal salinity and temperature, and contaminated agricultural soils and agricultural runoff."

Adds Charles Vörösmarty, co-Chair and a founding member of the GWSP, which receives input from more hundreds of international scientists: "By throwing concrete, pipes, pumps, and chemicals at our water problems, to the tune of a half-trillion dollars a year, we've produced a technological curtain separating clean water flowing from our pipes and the highly-stressed natural waters that sit in the background. We treat symptoms of environmental abuse rather than underlying causes. Thus, problems continue to mount in the background, yet the public is largely unaware of this reality or its growing costs."

Aims of the Bonn meeting

Featuring 60 special topic sessions, "Water in the Anthropocene" is a capstone event for the GWSP, which is developing "Future Water," the water-related component of the emerging new multi-dimensional international collaborative environmental research framework, Future Earth.

A goal of the meeting is to synthesize major global water research achievements in the last decade and help assembling the scientific foundations to articulate a common vision of Earth's water future.

It will recommended priorities for decision makers in the areas of earth system science and water resources governance and management.

And it will constitute a scientific prelude to October's Budapest Water Summit, a major objective of which is to elevate the importance of water issues within the UN General Assembly negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals -- a set of globally-agreed future objectives to succeed the UN Millennium Development Goals in 2015.



Observers expect adoption of "water security" as a Sustainable Development Goal

Water expert Janos Bogardi, Senior Advisor to GWSP, says the absence of defined global water quantity and quality standards for personal use, agriculture and healthy ecosystems are critical gaps as the world community develops its next set of shared medium-term objectives.

"These definitions constitute a cardinal challenge today for scientists and politicians alike. It is important to reach consensus in order to make progress on the increasingly important notion of 'water security'," says Dr. Bogardi, stressing that changing terminology will not in itself solve problems. "Replacing the word 'sustainability' with 'security' is not a panacea."

With respect to quantity, less than 20 liters daily for sanitary needs and drinking is deemed "water misery" while 40 to 80 liters is considered "comfortable." (Current US per capita average daily consumption is over 300 liters; daily usage in urban Germany is about 120 liters per capita and in urban Hungary, where water is relatively expensive, the figure is 80 liters.)

Missing also are authoritative scientific determinations of how much water can be drawn without crossing a "tipping point" threshold into ecosystem collapse. While there is no general rule, GWSP scientists say withdrawals of 30% to 40% of a renewable freshwater resource constitutes "extreme" water stress, but underline scope to continue satisfying needs if water is returned and recycled in good quality. Mining fossil groundwater resources is by definition non-sustainable.

The GWSP is developing water quality guidelines for people, agriculture and ecosystems in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.

"The urgency of formulating the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and a tracking system for their success means that quite soon the SDG negotiators must offer-up water targets," says Dr. Vörösmarty. "Whether they focus predominantly on continuing the Millennium Development Goals (narrowly on drinking water and sanitation for human health) or formulate a more comprehensive agenda that simultaneously optimizes water security for humans as well as for nature remains an open question. The water sciences community stands ready to take on this challenge. Are the the decision makers?"

Definitions of water security

In 2007, World Bank expert David Grey and Claudia Sadoff of IUCN, defined water security as "The availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks to people, environments and economies."

Their use of the term "acceptable" acknowledges that water security has relative, negotiable meanings.

In March, another formulation was set out by UN-Water, the United Nations' inter-agency coordination mechanism for all water-related issues.



It defined water security as: "The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of and acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability." (seehttp://bit.ly/1864vMG)

The full text of The Bonn Declaration:
In the short span of one or two generations, the majority of the 9 billion people on Earth will be living under the handicap of severe pressure on fresh water, an absolutely essential natural resource for which there is no substitute. This handicap will be self-inflicted and is, we believe, entirely avoidable.

After years of observations and a decade of integrative research convened under the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) and other initiatives, water scientists are more than ever convinced that fresh water systems across the planet are in a precarious state.

Mismanagement, overuse and climate change pose long-term threats to human well-being, and evaluating and responding to those threats constitutes a major challenge to water researchers and managers alike. Countless millions of individual local human actions add up and reverberate into larger regional, continental and global changes that have drastically changed water flows and storage, impaired water quality, and damaged aquatic ecosystems.

Human activity thus plays a central role in the behavior of the global water system.

Since 2004, the Global Water System Project (GWSP) has spearheaded a broad research agenda and new ways of thinking about water as a complex global system, emphasizing the links that bind its natural and human components. Research carried out by GWSP and its partners has produced several important results that inform a better global understanding of fresh water today.

Humans are a key feature of the global water system, influencing prodigious quantities of water: stored in reservoirs, taken from rivers and groundwater and lost in various ways. Additional deterioration through pollution, now detectable on a global scale, further limits an already-stressed resource base, and negatively affects the health of aquatic life forms and human beings.

At a time of impending water challenges, it remains a struggle to secure the basic environmental and social observations needed to obtain an accurate picture of the state of the resource. We need to know about the availability, condition and use of water as part of a global system through sustained environmental surveillance. History teaches us that failure to obtain this basic information will be costly and dangerous.

Humans typically achieve water security through short-term and often costly engineering solutions, which can create long-lived impacts on social-ecological systems. Faced with a choice of water for short-term economic gain or for the more general health of aquatic ecosystems, society overwhelmingly chooses development, often with deleterious consequences on the very water systems that provide the resource.

Traditional approaches to development are counterproductive, destroying the services that healthy water systems provide, such as flood protection, habitat for fisheries and pollution control. Loss of these services will adversely affect current and future generations.

Sustainable development requires both technological and institutional innovation. At present, the formulation of effective institutions for the management of water lags behind engineering technologies in many regions.

Research from the GWSP and elsewhere confirms that current increases in the use of water and impairment of the water system are on an unsustainable trajectory. However, current scientific knowledge cannot predict exactly how or precisely when a planetary-scale boundary will be breached. Such a tipping point could trigger irreversible change with potentially catastrophic consequences.

The existing focus on water supply, sanitation and hygiene has delivered undoubted benefits to people around the world, but equally, we need to consider wider Sustainable Development Goals in the context of the global water system. Ecosystem-based sustainable water management, a pressing need that was reaffirmed at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, requires that solving water problems must be a joint obligation of environmental scientists, social scientists, engineers, policy-makers, and a wide range of stakeholders.

These realities motivate the water community assembled in Bonn for the Global Water System Project Conference "Water in the Anthropocene" to make a set of core recommendations to institutions and individuals focused on science, governance, management and decision-making relevant to water resources on earth. Given the development imperatives associated with all natural resources at the dawn of the 21st century, we urge a united front to form a strategic partnership of scientists, public stakeholders, decision-makers and the private sector. This partnership should develop a broad, community-consensus blueprint for a reality-based, multi-perspective, and multi-scale knowledge-to-action water agenda, based on these recommendations:

1) Make a renewed commitment to adopt a multi-scale and interdisciplinary approach to water science in order to understand the complex and interlinked nature of the global water system and how it may change now and in future.

2) Execute state-of-the-art synthesis studies of knowledge about fresh water that can inform risk assessments and be used to develop strategies to better promote the protection of water systems.

3) Train the next generation of water scientists and practitioners in global change research and management, making use of cross-scale analysis and integrated system design.

4) Expand monitoring, through traditional land-based environmental observation networks and state-of-the-art earth-observation satellite systems, to provide detailed observations of water system state.

5) Consider ecosystem-based alternatives to costly structural solutions for climate proofing, such that the design of the built environment in future includes both traditional and green infrastructure.

6) Stimulate innovation in water institutions, with a balance of technical- and governance-based solutions and taking heed of value systems and equity. A failure to adopt a more inclusive approach will make it impossible to design effective green growth strategies or policies.
A new geologic epoch, "The Anthropocene," is characterized by humanity's growing dominance of Earth's environment and a planetary transformation as profound as the last epoch-defining event -- the retreat of the glaciers 11, 500 years ago.

Among examples of humans' planet-altering imprint on the world:

Humanity uses an area the size of South America to grow its crops and an area the size of Africa for raising livestock

Due to groundwater and hydrocarbon pumping in low lying coastal areas, two-thirds of major river deltas are sinking, some of them at a rate four times faster on average than global sea level is rising

More rock and sediment is now moved by human activities such as shoreline in-filling, damming and mining than by the natural erosive forces of ice, wind and water combined

Many river floods today have links to human activities, including the Indus flood of 2010 (which killed 2,000 people), and the Bangkok flood of 2011 (815 deaths)

On average, humanity has built one large dam every day for the last 130 years. Tens of thousands of large dams now distort natural river flows to which ecosystems and aquatic life adapted over millennia

Drainage of wetlands destroys their capacity to ease floods-a free service of nature expensive to replace

Evaporation from poorly-managed irrigation renders many of the world's rivers dry -- no water, no life. And so, little by little, tens of thousands of species edge closer to extinction every day
The recommendations above, taken collectively, can constitute the centrepiece of a blueprint to promote the adoption of science-based evidence into the formulation of goals for sustainable development. Stewardship requires balancing the needs of humankind and the needs of nature through the protection of ecosystems and the services that they provide. Without such a design framework, we anticipate highly fragmented decision-making and the persistence of maladaptive approaches to water management.


Contacts and sources:
Terry Collins
Global Water System Project

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