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We will experience climate change through our interactions with water

  • We will experience climate change through our interactions with water

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RSK Group
RSK provides end-to-end, bespoke solutions to a vast array of challenges. We strive to be a world leader in the field of environmental science, research, engineering and technical services.
Water is fundamental to ensuring all life thrives. However, its unrestrained power has the potential to cause great harm. As we witness climate change globally, many of the direct impacts we sustain will be felt through our interactions, and relationship, with water. Mark Smith, Water Sector Director at RSK Group, explores how this vital resource will continue to shape so much of our future as we feel the impact of a changing climate.
When we think about climate change, we think of extremes. We think of extreme high heat that will make, and perhaps already is making, parts of the world uninhabitable. Most people will not experience these temperatures at their worst – it may get hot, hotter than it has before, but not to the levels we will begin to see in more southern regions. So, if we are not feeling the extreme heat, how will we experience climate change?
It will be through water. The resource that is vital to life will be the interface through which we experience the devastation of climate breakdown. This past summer, we have seen the power of water and how its interaction with climate change will manifest in four critical ways globally.
  • Mass migration

Whether it be a response to extreme heat, drought or flood, we are likely to see an increase in mass migration due to environmental conditions. It is expected that people in parts of the world worst affected will make the decision to move or be forced to do so by disaster. Last summer, when Pakistan was submerged by flood waters, an estimated 8 million people were displaced from their homes according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). While most of those affected by the floods in Pakistan were internally displaced, it is anticipated that mass migration northwards will occur as people seek cooler temperatures and better economic opportunities.
  • Extreme weather

The event that we may all come to see is the arrival of extreme weather, too much or too little rain. In all parts of the world this year, we saw the impact of this and, in some areas, that drought and flood can co-exist. Spain has, for many years, been troubled by drought, which has led to a reduction in the country’s groundwater levels. Through the summer, storms brought torrential rain across the country, causing flash flooding events that closed city metro lines and airports. The reason for the extent of such severe flood events here, as in many other parts of the world that have recently been affected by high heat and aridity, is not just the intensity of the rainfall but also changes to the ground and its ability to absorb the water that lands on it.
  • Changing ground conditions

When the soil has been starved of water for prolonged periods of time, its composition begins to change. The drier it gets, the less readily it can absorb water. What we then find is rainwater remains as surface water that cannot easily be drawn down into the ground, causing flooding through run-off. Not only does this cause damage as flood water but also it exacerbates existing challenges with pollutants on the surface finding their way into waterbodies. In the UK, we are already grappling with the impacts of storm overflows releasing sewage waters into rivers and streams and increased levels of run-off from the roads and fields; these are only going to compound the pollution challenge. 
When these three events come together as climate change evolves and puts increasing pressure on people and planet, we find a situation that creates the potential for a health disaster. Where we have more people, insufficient infrastructure, more extreme weather and drier ground, the factors compound to present a real, dangerous situation – the fourth facet through which climate change will be experienced.
  • Increased risk of preventable disease

There is a high potential for an increase in disease in places where we find sewerage infrastructure is under capacity and impacted by severe rainfall events. This is particularly pressing when you consider that currently 2.2 billion people live without safely managed drinking water and 3.5 billion people without safely managed sanitation, according to UN-Water. When severe weather is a factor, the numbers of people potentially impacted grow – as we have seen in Libya in September this year, devastating flooding is expected to be followed by disease. The Libyan Red Crescent is anticipating a second disaster following the destruction of water and sewage infrastructure, which could lead to a surge in dysentery and cholera in the area.
If we know the relationship among these events and that they will have potentially dangerous impacts, what can we do? That question comes down to improved water management. At the centre, these crises reflect failing management of water resources and inadequate maintenance of existing assets. Our water and its availability are cyclical and can, and must, be managed. More importantly, we know it is not a difficult fix.
We require an honest conversation about the reality that we now face and the escalating risks that are exposing more and more of us to harm. Building long-term resilience into our networks will require long-term investment. The International High-Level Panel on Water Investments for Africa estimates that achieving water security and sustainable sanitation for all in Africa by 2030 will cost approximately US$50 billion annually or US$40 per African per year. If this is achieved, more financing will be needed to manage and maintain these assets. In parallel to this programme, we need to create equitable access and resilience in the ways that we manage our resources. There is no new technological innovation requirement here. Safe sanitation and drinking water can be achieved with existing technology and engineering knowledge, and it is possible to remedy pollution with these same systems.
Today, water issues are rising on the global agenda. The United Nations will host its water conference in 2026, bringing critical water issues to the fore. But this will leave us just four years to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6, ‘clean water and sanitation for all’. To get there by 2030, we must find the ambition and funding to deliver solutions we know work.
Under investment is happening now. We must not wait for more events such as those seen in Libya, Pakistan and Spain before focus on the solutions we have available to us results in action.

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