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Global Heating Brings More Flooding, More Drought as Water Cycle Intensifies

Global heating has increased flooding by 134% and drought by 29% since 2000, and many developing countries are dangerously ill-equipped to handle extremes that are only going to get worse, says a new report. 

“The water is draining out of the tub in some places, while it’s overflowing in others,” Maxx Dilley, climate program director for the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO), told Inside Climate News. His organization produced the report, which describes an “acceleration in the water cycle” that scientists have long warned would accompany global heating.

The report also warns of a steady depletion in the global fresh water supply, with levels now dropping by more than a centimetre each year—a decline that could leave roughly five billion people with “inadequate access to water at least one month per year” by 2050, writes Inside Climate. 

The changes to the water cycle—rooted in the basic physical fact that warmer air can hold more water vapour—have already caused profound human suffering, while hammering economies.

“Between 1970 and 2019, there were 11,072 disasters related to weather, water, and other climate-related hazards, resulting in 2.06 million deaths and US$3.6 trillion in economic losses,” Inside Climate writes, citing WMO estimates.

And “about 70% of the deaths associated with climate-related hazards were in the world’s least developed countries,” with Asia suffering most from flooding, while Africa has been in the crosshairs of drought.

That suffering has been compounded, especially in developing countries in the Global South, by gaps in data and disaster preparedness.

“There is a long, long history of attempts to improve early warning systems for impacts to agriculture and food security but the water sector is underserved,” said Dilley. “There are a series of water variables, like groundwater and river discharge, that aren’t being observed.” 

Inside Climate writes that, in 40 of the 101 countries assessed, “basic hydrological variables like stream flows and groundwater were not adequately monitored,” while in 67 “the data wasn’t adequately shared with the agencies that needed it.”

Furthermore, “a third of the countries lacked river flood forecasts and alerts, while more than half had inadequate drought forecasting and early warnings or lacked them altogether.”

At the level of the most fundamental water infrastructure, meanwhile, the data for 2020 show that “3.6 billion people lacked safely managed sanitation services like disposal of human waste, and 2.3 billion lacked basic hygiene services like washrooms in hospitals, factories, and kitchens.” 

WMO is responding with a call for more investment, with particular attention to helping the world’s poorest countries manage both existing water supplies and the harms delivered by too much or too little water.

But Dilley contrasted the tone of urgency emanating from the WMO report with the apathy that still seems to colour so much public and policy response to the climate crisis.  “If you get to the point where there is no water left, it’s too late,” he told Inside Climate. “Actions have to occur decades before you reach that point.”