Welcome to “What’s Up With Water” – your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann.
Large parts of Planet Earth were drier than normal last year, and that is especially true of river basins in southern South America. So says the World Meteorological Organization in its first report focusing on the availability of global water resources. The WMO is the United Nations agency that studies climate and weather. It intends to report annually on the state of the world’s water. The data and analysis in the report will enable strategic planning at many levels, from river basins to planetary resources. This first report presents data from 2021, but only for a few topics. The report covers river flow, water held in lakes and reservoirs, and changes to glaciers and snow cover. One major finding from last year’s data is sobering news on river flows: land area with below-average river flow was twice as large as land area with above-average river flow. In future reports, the WMO hopes to expand its coverage to include groundwater, soil moisture, and water quality. That will require more data than is currently available. Over time, the WMO expects the report to identify hydrological patterns and areas of concern for drought, flood, and melting glaciers.
Another recent report highlights one of water’s overlooked roles: preventing the planet from dangerously overheating. An extensive report from the Stockholm International Water Institute describes how freshwater systems and their management have been neglected by global climate change agreements. The report’s authors claim that success in lowering carbon emissions will be determined by how well the world manages its water. Freshwater ecosystems like marshes and wetlands store carbon, protect biodiversity, and improve soil and water quality. The report also warns of unintended consequences. Projects to reduce carbon emissions need to consider the impact on water resources. Nuclear plants, for instance, require enormous volumes of water for cooling. The hot water they discharge into rivers can kill the life there. Other climate solutions also come with water risks. Growing trees to store carbon and harvesting plants to make biofuels could bring down carbon emissions. But both options require a commitment of land and water, as well as nutrients. The fertilizers that nourish these biofuel harvests can severely pollute rivers and aquifers. To minimize the stress on ecosystems, the report’s authors say that governments need to integrate water considerations into their climate plans.
The vulnerability of energy systems in a changing climate is on display in southern Africa’s Zambezi River basin, where Kariba Dam is located. The river authority that operates the dam said it will stop producing hydropower at least through the end of the year because its reservoir does not have enough water. The Associated Press reports that the shutdown will hurt Zimbabwe, which depends on the dam for about 70 percent of its electricity. The reservoir behind Kariba Dam is the world’s largest when it’s full. But it has dwindled to a mere 4 percent of its capacity. Seasonal rains should come to the rescue soon – the river authority expects the reservoir’s level to begin to rise in January.
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