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"We must confront the existential crisis of climate change by recognizing it as a water crisis"

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The global challenge of securing access to safe drinking water is urgent. Presently, approximately two billion people lack access to this essential resource, and projections indicate that by 2050, this figure will surge to five billion.

Faced with this situation, the United Nations ensured that global water safety become a priority in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals; however, we are witnessing how the escalating challenges of climate change and severe weather events are further jeopardizing this vital resource. Nevertheless, the relationship between climate change and water safety is not always obvious for the worldwide population. This is why researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) decided to investigate the intersection of water safety concerns, climate change, and severe weather, uncovering a surprising trend. In this interview, we had a chance to speak with the leading authors of the research: Wändi Bruine de Bruin, Provost Professor of Public Policy, Psychology and Behavioral Science at USC, Josh Inwald, social psychology PhD student at USC and Marc Yaggi, CEO of Waterkeeper Alliance, to discover their main findings and discuss the latest developments in water security.

Please tell us briefly about your career path and your current role at the University of Southern California.

Wändi Bruine de Bruin: I am a Provost Professor of Public Policy, Psychology and Behavioral Science at the University of Southern California (USC) and director of the USC Behavioral Science and Well-Being Policy initiative. I have a PhD in Behavioral Decision Research and Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University and an MSc and BSc in Psychology from the Free University in Amsterdam. My research aims to understand and inform how people make decisions about their personal health and environmental impacts. I am the lead investigator of a project in which we’re analysing public perceptions of risk around the world, using the Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll, which has been conducted in 142 countries.  Josh Inwald, Marc Yaggi, Joe Arvai and I recently published a paper on Environmental Science & Technology in which we analysed public perceptions of water safety, extreme weather and climate change around the world. The paper was led by Josh.

Wändi Bruine de Bruin, Provost Professor of Public Policy, Psychology and Behavioral Science at the University of Southern California (USC)

Josh Inwald: I am a third-year social psychology PhD student at USC, studying under Wändi Bruine de Bruin and Joe Árvai. My research focuses on applying the tools of behavioral science and social psychology to deduce policy-relevant insights on topics relating to climate change, sustainability and human well-being. Projects to date include work on risk perceptions of severe weather and climate change, connections between those risks and global water safety, the impact of political polarization on Americans’ support for pro-climate policies, and psychological interventions to reduce hiring discrimination. Prior to USC, I worked in multiple industries including strategy consulting, marketing and education. I completed my undergraduate coursework at Northwestern University, with degrees in psychology (advisor: Galen Bodenhausen), statistics and social policy.

The science has shown that global climate change is largely driven by human-caused emissions of fossil fuel production and combustion

Marc Yaggi: I am Chief Executive Officer of Waterkeeper Alliance, a global movement of community-based advocates united for clean, healthy, and abundant water for all people and the planet. I have dedicated my entire career to environmental advocacy and have been instrumental in expanding the Waterkeeper movement around the world for nearly 20 years. I have a deep, personal passion for clean water and provide organizational leadership by developing strategic partnerships and promoting the Waterkeeper model of citizen-based advocacy and action. Before joining Waterkeeper Alliance, I was a Senior Attorney and Watershed Program Director for Riverkeeper, Inc., where I worked to protect the 2,000-square mile watershed that serves as New York City’s drinking water supply. Prior to that, I served as a Staff Attorney with the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C.

Josh Inwald, social psychology PhD student at USC

How does climate change exacerbate the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, and what implications does this have for water security on a global scale? 

Waterkeeper Alliance advocates for phasing out offshore drilling and bringing an end to all new fossil fuel expansion projects

Marc Yaggi: The science has shown that global climate change is largely driven by human-caused emissions of fossil fuel production and combustion as well as other impacts of human activity, such as deforestation and methane emissions from livestock farming, rice paddies, and hydropower reservoirs. We’re witnessing severe and worsening impacts to human populations and natural systems, which are primarily experienced through water events such as droughts, superstorms, floods, storm surges, changes to snowpack and ice pack, disruption of marine and freshwater ecosystems, ocean acidification, sea level rise, coastal erosion and inundation of aquifers and other valued natural systems. As temperatures rise, extreme heat waves increase, intense storm systems gain fuel from warmer ocean water, and accelerated evaporation has a dual effect of severe drought in some locations and more frequent precipitation in others. It’s an unbalanced cycle that has dire, and often tragic consequences.

On a global scale, we must confront the existential crisis of climate change by recognizing it as a water crisis as well as a threat multiplier that implicates famine, public health, political conflict, economic growth, and more. In order to implement an aggressive timeline to shift our unrelenting dependence on fossil fuels, Waterkeeper Alliance advocates for phasing out offshore drilling and bringing an end to all new fossil fuel expansion projects. To have any hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C, it is imperative to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to pursue achievable policies and pathways to decarbonize our energy systems.  Doing so will aid us in limiting the impacts of climate change and safeguarding the health of our oceans, marine wildlife, and coastal communities.


Marc Yaggi, CEO of Waterkeeper Alliance

How does climate change contribute to the salinization of freshwater sources, and what are the potential consequences in terms of water security and quality? 

Marc Yaggi: Climate change contributes to the salinization of freshwater in a myriad of ways. As we currently are seeing in Louisiana, extensive drought conditions in the Mississippi River basin have led to saltwater flowing up from the Gulf of Mexico, threatening water supplies up to New Orleans and beyond. Further, rising sea levels can lead to seawater incursions into drinking water aquifers. Additionally, over-pumping coastal aquifers exacerbates the risk of saltwater intrusion.

Second-order effects of climate change will negatively impact water security in the realms of waterborne illness and geopolitical conflict

Given its higher density, salt water flows under fresh water and can compromise drinking water supplies. Saltwater intrusion in drinking water systems can cause a briny taste, corrode plumbing, and cause other water treatment infrastructure impacts. In terms of public health, higher salinity in drinking water can lead to kidney problems and other health issues. Ultimately, too much salinity in a water supply can make a water supply undrinkable and unsafe. Salinization of freshwater also harms aquatic life and negatively impacts plants and food production.

How does climate change influence the increase of waterborne diseases, and what measures can be taken to mitigate these impacts on water quality and public health?

Marc Yaggi: According to the United Nations, around two billion people do not have access to clean and safe drinking water, while approximately 3.6 billion people lack adequate sanitation services. Before COVID, it was widely understood that over half the hospital beds in the world are filled with people suffering from waterborne diseases. In developed nations, where many of these diseases had been all but eliminated through advances in water treatment, we are seeing resurgences due to the impacts of climate change.

Increased precipitation, droughts, and drastic temperature variations have all been linked to an uptick in waterborne diseases. Pathogens are spread by floodwaters and overflows, while increased water temperatures provide the right environment for bacteria, viruses, and parasites to flourish. This sad fact can be expected to continue and grow, as the convergence of climate change, pollution, and overuse are stressing global water supplies, jeopardizing human health, and increasing competition for precious water resources – with rationing and intense battles to control supplies.

Humanity has the ingenuity and ability to solve these crises. Key measures that need to happen include an aggressive timeline to shift our dependence away from fossil fuels and bring an end to new and expanded fossil fuel sources; commitments to a low-carbon future and adoption of holistic environmental strategies to build resilience in local watersheds and communities; justice, equity, and better health outcomes for climate-vulnerable, low-income communities, communities of colour, and indigenous communities who bear the brunt of climate change impacts; accountability for those who pollute our waterways; and a highly engaged citizenry that recognizes its power and obligation to clean water for current generations and to ensure we aren’t bequeathing future generations with contaminated rivers, dying oceans, dirty air, denuded forests, and sterile fields.

  • Saltwater intrusion in drinking water systems causes a briny taste, corrode plumbing, and other water treatment infrastructure impacts

Josh Inwald: Changes in climate are expected to intensify the impact of waterborne illnesses. Floods and violent storms can easily damage water infrastructure and often lead to cross-contamination of drinking water pipelines with sewage systems. Droughts force people to turn to less reliable water sources, which may be more prone to contamination or tested for safety less frequently than proven sources. Many waterborne pathogens also become more dangerous and multiply faster in hotter conditions, resulting in greater risk of illnesses such as cholera and typhoid.

Mitigation measures to help individuals and governments prepare for threats to water security are varied, though local conditions and behavioral dynamics must be understood in order to prescribe the most effective solutions. These include building more robust water infrastructure (e.g. pipelines, backup generators), disaster preparedness plans, natural disaster warning systems, and greater education and access to water quality testing and treatment chemicals.

What parts of the world face the most challenging future regarding water security?

Before COVID, it was widely understood that over half the hospital beds in the world are filled with people suffering from waterborne diseases

Marc Yaggi: According to the World Resources Institute, the most water-stressed regions are the Middle East and North Africa, where 83% of the population is exposed to extremely high water stress, while South Asia follows closely behind with 74%. As global water demand is expected to grow 20%-25% by 2050, it will only intensify the threat to water security, particularly in water-stressed regions and developing countries that struggle with widespread poverty and ineffective governments.

Josh Inwald: Beyond MENA and South Asia, the World Meteorological Organization in 2021 also identified regions in Central Asia, Northeast China, sub-Saharan Africa (especially the Sahel region), and areas on the west coasts of North America and South America as “global water stress hotspots”. 

What would you highlight from the Public Concern about Water Safety, Weather and Climate: Insights from the World Risk Poll?

Josh Inwald: Our main finding is that, around the world, people are more likely to report being concerned about their water safety if they are also concerned about severe weather events. By comparison, the relationship between their concerns about water safety and their concerns about severe weather is stronger than the relationship between their concerns about water safety and their concerns about climate change.  In other words, it seems that people’s concerns about water safety are more likely to be informed by their concerns about severe weather than by their concerns about climate change. And this finding holds around the world and for every continent.

People are more likely to report being concerned about their water safety if they are also concerned about severe weather events

Wändi Bruine de Bruin: This finding suggests that it’s easier for people to see how severe weather affects their water safety than to see how climate change affects their water safety.  After all, severe weather is much more concrete and directly observable than climate change. So, this finding suggests that communications about water safety will be more compelling to most people if they talk about how the increasing frequency of severe weather is threatening our water safety.  And if we additionally want to highlight the threat of climate change to our water safety, we might need to explain that a bit more.

  • People’s concerns about water safety are more likely to be informed by their concerns about severe weather than by climate change

How can effective communication and education bridge the gap in public perception regarding the direct connection between climate change and its influence on water safety?

Communications about climate change are often needlessly complex and use climate jargon like “mitigation” and “adaptation”

Josh Inwald: Our analysis demonstrates that people are more likely to associate water safety with severe weather, than they are to connect water safety with climate change. Based on this, when speaking about water safety, communicators would likely be more persuasive if they discuss threats to water safety as stemming directly from droughts, floods and storms, instead of as caused by the slow-moving, abstract threat of climate change. Climate change can still be mentioned as a driver of water stress, but by focusing on the threats posed by tangible, directly experienced weather events, it will be more persuasive to a global audience, especially if that audience is less educated on the scientific aspects of climate change.

Wändi Bruine de Bruin: Another suggestion I have is to make sure that these communications are understandable.  Communications about climate change are often needlessly complex and use climate jargon like “mitigation” and “adaptation.” For a recent study published in the journal Climatic Change, we interviewed people in the United States and found that even those who said they were concerned about climate change thought that communications about climate change were talking over their heads.  And that can be really off-putting, undermine trust, and lead to miscommunications. For this study, IPCC authors selected key terms they used in their climate change communication, including “mitigation” and “adaptation.” We found that each term caused some confusion. For example, some of our participants interpreted “mitigation” as “resolving a conflict” – thus confusing it with “mediation.” And some said that “adaptation” meant “turning a book into a movie.”  So, they struggled to interpret these words in the context of climate change.  To make these key terms easier to understand, some of our interviewees suggested using everyday wording. Why not explain “mitigation” as “actions we can take to stop climate change from getting worse” and “adaptation” as “actions we can take to protect ourselves against the climate change that is already happening.”

What strategies can be employed to encourage behaviours that enhance water safety in the face of climate-related challenges? 

Josh Inwald: For individuals, people facing water stress would benefit from education on water quality testing, how to prepare safe drinking water during natural disasters, and greater accessibility of water safety technologies such as water sanitization chemicals, filtration devices, clean water storage units, and rainwater collectors. It is important to stress the importance of highly localized education – water safety solutions in one region may not apply to people everywhere, therefore strategies must be tailored to account for differences in household culture (e.g. who is responsible for sourcing clean water?), geological conditions, political context, and the like.

At the local government level, better disaster preparedness can help mitigate the impact of climate-related disasters. Better early-warning systems can give people more time to prepare safe water or evacuate from dangerous areas. More investment in climate-resilient water infrastructure is also sorely needed.

We must stress the importance of highly localized education – water safety solutions in one region may not apply to people everywhere

Can you share more about how Waterkeeper has led community-driven data collection and what insights have been gained from that approach that could assist with mitigating climate change realities?

Marc Yaggi: The water sector is in an interesting place where, at the same time, there is both a plethora of water data and not nearly enough water data. Here in the United States, a majority of our waterways are not monitored or assessed by the government. At the same time, pollution from manufacturing, industry, mining, energy production, human waste and industrial meat production, along with climate change impacts, are destroying the water we need to live. As a result, it is imperative for citizen scientists to jump into the breach and secure this data which is critical for identifying and solving pollution problems. At Waterkeeper Alliance, we believe that citizens and our Waterkeeper groups are uniquely positioned to provide the highest-quality data collection and monitoring to inform, engage, and equip communities to protect themselves and their waterways.

For example, in 2022, Waterkeeper Alliance worked with Waterkeeper groups and their community supporters to test 114 waterways in 34 states and the District of Columbia for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Through that citizen-led monitoring study, we learned that 83% of the waterways tested positive for at least one type of PFAS. This study gave community groups the information to educate the public, identify pollution sources, and advocate for solutions.