World Water Day: Exploring the linkages between climate change and water resources

Born in the Netherlands and now living in Chicago, I’ve experienced the salt and freshwater seas lapping at the shores of my home my entire life. The Dutch have built giant seawalls and networks of canals to keep their feet dry - a growing challenge as sea levels rise. Meanwhile, Lake Michigan recently reached one of its highest recorded levels. Climate change has a profound influence on all water systems, from rising seas, to prolonged droughts and over-flowing river systems. These impacts are visible right here in the Great Lakes watershed. An Assessment on the Impacts of Climate Change on the Great Lakes, led by Dr. Don Wuebbles, renowned climate researcher and professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, highlighted that the region can expect to experience wetter winters and springs and drier summers in the future. Water is the premium medium through which we feel the effects of climate change, and responding to water-related challenges will inevitably require addressing the water-climate nexus. Although we may feel overwhelmed by the size of such a task, we can attain sustainable water resources and a healthy climate through collaborative solutions at multiple scales.

One of Amsterdam's many canals. Photo by © Francine van den Brandeler

On March 22nd we celebrate World Water Day, and this year’s theme is Water and Climate – and how these are inextricably linked. This theme could not be timelier. Climate change is leading to more frequent and intense extreme weather events, such as droughts, storms and floods. More incremental changes, such as diminishing snow cover, sea ice and glaciers and the melting of permafrost, could lead to tipping points where irreversible and catastrophic change becomes inevitable. For instance, the disintegration of Greenland’s sea ice could lead to a 23-feet increase in sea levels, while permafrost loss would release high levels of CO2 and methane from frozen carbon-rich soils, thereby further accelerating the Earth’s warming. Changes in the climate are impacting sustainable and reliable water resources for communities, agriculture and other economic activities, as well as for ecosystems and biodiversity. For example, it is estimated that heavier precipitation in Illinois in the winter and spring will delay planting season and lead to overall lower crop yields, while also aggravating urban flooding and damaging aging infrastructure. Intense rains also impact water quality by overwhelming stormwater and sewer systems and sweeping fertilizers from farmland into waterways.

While climate change is a global phenomenon, its impacts on water are generally experienced and managed locally. Water management reflects a region’s particular characteristics, including its history, geography, culture, geology, economy, climatic patterns and hydrology. The same level of rainfall in two different locations can have vastly different impacts depending on local conditions and the capacity of communities and local governments to respond. Nevertheless, as global climate change increasingly shapes water-related risks at local levels, we urgently need to develop governance frameworks and innovative solutions at multiple levels.

Out West, water is especially important and contested. The Colorado River Basin is facing severe risks of water shortages due to excessive water use as well as reductions in river flows linked to a changing climate (a 6% decrease over the past 15 years). With ¾ of the river’s water used to irrigate crops, it is crucial to support farmers in developing more efficient irrigation practices or adjust the types of crops they plant. These types of local adaptation measures will become increasingly urgent as climate change accelerates. Brian Richter of Sustainable Waters explains that, as the river basin spans across seven different states and Mexico, its water is used to supply 40 million people, irrigate 5.5 million acres of farmland and sustain 49 native fish species. As water demand has increased and available supply decreased over the years, it is also necessary to rethink a regional framework for water sharing and water preservation. This could take the form of a joint commitment towards improved water demand management and water use efficiency, pushed by a progressive reduction in each state’s water allocation to a sustainable level.

Although located relatively near one of the largest freshwater bodies in the world, some communities In Northeast Illinois depend on rapidly depleting groundwater resources. Local leaders are exploring alternative water supply avenues, in particular utilizing some of the state of Illinois’ water allocation from Lake Michigan through the City of Chicago or through their own means. One challenge, as towns can no longer rely on local water supplies, is that Northeast Illinois has over 400 community water suppliers. This leads to fragmented governance of shared resources, with reduced capacities and greater risk of conflicts between neighboring jurisdictions. This fragmentation also extends to the prevention and management of stormwater and flood risks, which are increasing with climate change.

Wilmette Beach, Lake Michigan shore. Photo by © John A. Andersen

Ultimately, adapting the way we manage water resources and risks from hydrological events will require us to think more and more about our place within a larger and dynamic system. Cross-jurisdictional and multi-scalar approaches, including local, regional, national and global solutions, are necessary to address water challenges that are both contextually-defined and shaped by factors at higher levels and in distant locations. With climate change, similarly but with a longer duration and much greater impact than the threat of COVID-19, our greatest challenges require collaborative responses. We are all interconnected and our individual actions – whether it is reducing carbon and water footprints or practicing social distancing and rigorous hand-washing – can save many lives. Sharing knowledge and best practices by bridging different communities of experts and practitioners, and  scaling up solutions from the local to the global and back again, enables protection of shared resources: this is why Greenleaf was founded. On World Water Day, join us in our pledge to work collaboratively toward a healthy and sustainable world by mitigating and adapting to climate change and stewarding water resources that support life.

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