Written by Amina Amdeen.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
On October 22nd, the city of Austin issued a boil water notice to its residents. At UT, the water fountains and bottle refilling stations were covered with plastic and taped up. Within hours, grocery stores around the city had empty shelves where bottled water used to be. According to a Forbes article, there were also reports of people hoarding cases of bottled water and selling them to their neighbors for $50 a gallon. Austinites reacted like it was the apocalypse.
Multiple sources, including the city’s own website, attributed the situation to the heavy flooding that Austin and surrounding areas experienced throughout the previous month, the wettest September on record in Texas. This overwhelmed the treatment facilities, and created water that contained high levels of silt and residue. While the notice was not exactly unusual, as city water systems break down quite frequently, it did give us a taste of what’s to come if we fail to address the environmental impact of our consumption habits in the West.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report on October 8th warning that the world has 12 years to get climate change under control. As it currently stands, the earth has warmed up an average of 1° Celsius as a result of human activity. Current human activity has placed the planet on track to reach a disastrous 3° increase within our lifetime. Limiting climate change to 1.5° of warming could reduce the proportion of the global population that would be exposed to water stress and food scarcity. Failing to do so would cause us to see extremely hot days become more severe and common, leading to an increase in heat-related deaths. The major effects we would see in our water supply would be due to warmer temperatures that would lead to a higher level of evaporative losses from the surface. This would severely impact soil quality and threaten the livelihood of farmers, especially ones in the Mediterranean regions of Europe and Africa, Central America, southwest United States, and the subtropics of the southern hemisphere. Climate-related poverty and displacement is also a significant danger we face in the future, and according to the Guardian it would result in even higher numbers of refugees. These dangers were played down in the final report published by the IPCC, which stressed urgency above all else in addressing the environmental changes in an effort to maintain the focus on future action.
This same sense of urgency is arguably what helped Cape Town, South Africa avoid the dreaded “Day Zero” it faced during the fall of 2018. The city faced extreme water shortages caused by persistent droughts, and it got so bad that the government projected a day in which the entire city would run out of clean water. While it was originally pinpointed as August 2018, limiting consumption of water has helped the city push “Day Zero” to 2019. Droughts in other parts of the world have remained stubborn, however, lasting longer and devastating agriculture in much of the developing world.
In Syria, a major drought that began in 2006 has been examined as one of the many causes of the civil war that has been ravaging the country ever since. As temperatures rose and rainfall decreased, soil quality eroded and Syrian farmers struggled. Food shortages, urban migration, and unemployment combined to create the perfect conditions for civil unrest to breed into explosive conflict. Clearly, the impact of climate change will not be reduced to only environmental issues. Changes in the ecology of our planet will alter the structure of the societies, which could potentially accelerate conflict, exacerbate poverty, and induce mass migration and displacement.
However, hope is not lost. Austinites did indeed heed the call to reduce water consumption. Three days after the initial notice, the city’s water production was “out of the red,” enough to meet the city’s daily demand of about 150 million gallons. Similar collective efforts on a global scale could prevent the devastation that would be caused by water shortages. While we do face water stress, there are solutions. Improving our water management systems and conservation efforts could help us exploit the “wet years” (years in which precipitation rates would be above average) which would still exist, even in the driest projections. Furthermore, the obvious solution of halting the gas emissions that contribute to the warming of the planet could prevent soil moisture loss. This would alleviate the water stress experienced by the agricultural industries that so many developing countries rely on.
When looking at the effects that climate change has had on our world, it’s easy to see that not everyone has been affected equally. The regions of the world that are most ill-equipped to deal with water stress are the ones hit hardest by it. Poverty has only been exacerbated by environmental degradation in these countries. It is an understatement to say that we are extremely lucky to live in a country where we can empty the water bottle shelves of our grocery store and still be able to ship in millions of gallons of safe, bottled drinking water. Not only that, we are wealthy enough to buy as much as we need while reserving a surplus for our neighbors that might not be able to afford it. Not everyone in the world has the resources that we do. Austin was forced very briefly to face the shortage of the most basic human need for survival. Perhaps this will allow us to appreciate more deeply the extent of its scarcity, and take steps to respect and protect our future supply while we still can.