The effects of climate change put water infrastructure in danger, particularly in the developing world, according to a paper published in the scientific journal PLoS Biology. Not just water infrastructure is in danger, either. Two of the effects of climate change are droughts and floods which, in addition to harming water infrastructure, can disrupt food supplies and even the global economy. Two examples from last year are the floods in Pakistan which ruined crops, and the drought in Russia which caused a grain embargo.
The paper uses several examples to illustrate how climate change effects can extend from the developed world to the developing world, including the 2008 intensification of the drought in Australia. According to the paper, the intensification of the Australian drought contributed to the increase in food prices in India.
Old dams could be in trouble. The Hoover dam in the Colorado River basin is cited as an example. The Hoover dam’s design, created in the 1930s, is based on a 30-year period with some of the highest precipitation rates of the past millennium. Lake Mead now stores only about 30 percent of its designed capacity, which puts the region’s cities, agriculture and energy production in danger. Lake Mead supplies water for Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Hydropower projects are in a boon cycle in the developing world, which puts governments at risk for defaulting on loans from development investors. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) projects that 40 percent of all development investments are at risk from climate change.
Developing countries are not the only ones whose water infrastructure is at risk from climate change. Lead author of the paper, John Matthews, Director of Freshwater Climate Change at Conservation International, said that the policies of Colorado River, which supplies part of Southern California’s water, influence the the infrastructure of much of the western U.S. Those policies, according to Matthews, “were based on an enormous hydrological error about the amount of water that would available in the future – in the time we are living now.”
“The infrastructure we’re building worldwide right now is based on the same assumptions that we made back then,” Matthews added. “We run a huge risk of making poor nations poorer and accelerating the decline of species and ecosystems through bad development investments.”
The authors of paper recommend a three-step process for conservation science to provide practical decision making tools for funding, designing and operating water infrastructure:
- Consider alternatives to building new infrastructure
- Explicitly integrate ecosystems into infrastructure development
- Reduce the vulnerability of the infrastructure and its impacted ecosystems over the operational lifetime of the project
The conservation community should make “climate-sustainable water resource management” part of its long-term strategy to help regions adjust to the future effects of climate change, the paper concludes. “Given the risks for human communities and ecosystems from climate change, ecologists working in the developing world need to think more like development economists, and economists need to think more like ecologists,” the paper states.
In other words, climate change (and its very real effects) calls for paradigm shifts. Whether both developing and developed countries will make those shifts remains to be seen.
Photo credit: d_herrera96