In 2005, the global water cycle began to strike back. From the flooding of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina to the startling drought in the Amazon rainforest, the world began to feel the impact of a hydrological cycle under assault. And there is every reason to expect that water-related disasters will grab more headlines in 2006.
The unsettling fact is that distinguishing a natural disaster from a human-induced one is getting more difficult. Storms, floods, landslides and tidal waves are natural events, to be sure, but the degree to which they produce disaster is now often strongly influenced by human actions. By necessity or choice, more people are living in floodplains, along coastlines, and on fragile hillsides – zones that place them in harm’s way. At the same time, the clearing of trees, draining of wetlands, engineering of rivers, and destruction of coral reefs and mangroves has frayed the natural safety nets that healthy ecosystems provide. Consequently, when a natural disaster strikes, the risks of catastrophic losses are higher.
Munich Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies, reports that the loss of life and property due to natural disasters has been climbing for two decades. Worldwide economic losses from natural catastrophes during the past ten years have totalled $566.8 billion, exceeding the combined losses from 1950 through 1989. More than four times as many “great” natural catastrophes occurred during the 1990s as during the 1950s.
Global warming and its anticipated effects on the hydrological cycle will make the robustness and resilience of nature’s way of mitigating disasters all the more important, as tropical storms, seasonal flooding, and droughts increase in frequency and intensity.
At the same time, expanding populations and water-consumptive activities are straining freshwater supplies around the globe. In the United States, signs of water stress that used to be relegated to the west are now increasingly common in the east – from dried-up rivers, to shrinking lakes and reservoirs, to falling water-tables. When persistent droughts occur, there is little reserve to weather them, leaving people, crops, livestock, and fish at risk.
Corporations see a “water-stressed” future as a new frontier of opportunity and profit – and so, of course, it is. But whether those profits lie more in big dams to store water and plastic bottles to sell it or in efficient irrigation systems and native landscaping designs that enable us to use scarce water more productively will depend on one important thing: whether governments take seriously their role as custodians of the public trust in water.
In practice, this means putting tough policies in place that safeguard freshwater ecosystems and their life-support functions, and that encourage conservation rather than exploitation and waste. The European Union’s Water Framework Directivetakes some positive steps, but concrete results have yet to be seen. US policies with regard to rivers and wetlands have largely gone backwards under the current administration.
In 2006, the hydrological cycle will almost certainly lash back at us again. Expect more floods, droughts, dried-up rivers, and intense competition over dwindling supplies. Will it be enough to spur consumers and governments to act? Don’t hold your breath – unless you’re under water.