All regions of the world experienced extreme events in their rainy cycles last year, in the form of floods and droughts, and billions of people had trouble accessing fresh water, according to the UN report.
The report assesses the impact of climate, environmental and social change on water resources so that they can be better managed in the face of growing demand.
“The impacts of climate change tend to manifest themselves through water, with more intense and frequent droughts, more extreme floods, more irregular seasonal rains and the acceleration of the melting of glaciers, and generate cascading effects on economies, ecosystems and all aspects of our daily lives,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.
Around 3.6 billion people also have “inadequate” access to fresh water for at least one month of the year. Between 2001 and 2018, 74% of natural disasters were related to water, the UN said.
The WMO report analyzed the flow of rivers in several basins of the world and compared it with the average of the hydrological period of the last 30 years.
The area of land with below-average river flow was twice as large as the area above average, the WMO noted by way of summary.
In detail, among the driest areas recently, the report highlighted “the area of the Río de la Plata in South America, where persistent drought has affected the region since 2019, the south and southeast of the Amazon, and some basins in Latin America of the North, for example, those of the Colorado, Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
Instead, “higher-than-normal river flows were observed in some basins in North America, northern Amazonia, and southern Africa (Zambezi and Orange), as well as China (the Amur River basin) and the northern Amazon. India”.
For terrestrial water storage – that is, the water found on the Earth’s surface and underground – the negative trends were stronger than the positive ones. Storage was below the 20-year average on the US West Coast, central South America, and Patagonia, among other regions.
On the other hand, it was above normal in the Amazon basin, central Africa, and northern China.
“Some of the critical points are exacerbated by the overexploitation of groundwater for irrigation purposes. Melting snow and ice is also having a considerable impact in several areas, including Alaska, Patagonia and the Himalayas,” the WMO added.
The importance of the cryosphere
The largest reserves of fresh water in the world are found in the cryosphere, that is, where there is ice and snow, in glaciers, polar caps or permafrost.
The ice from the mountains feeds the rivers and is a source of freshwater supply for 1,900 million people, estimates the WMO, so its melting affects “food security, human health and the integrity and maintenance of ecosystems”.
For this reason, the UN agency urged the authorities to accelerate the implementation of early warning plans to prevent droughts and floods, and lessen the impact of these extreme events.
Some of the most relevant water impacts of 202:
Melting of glaciers accelerated globally in 2021. Ice masses in western Canada and the United States, and in central Europe experienced the most significant losses in the past four decades, the WMO report shows.
Also known to glaciologists as the “Third Pole,” the Tibetan Plateau is home to the largest freshwater reservoir outside the polar regions. Higher temperatures are accelerating melting ice, shrinking glaciers and sometimes triggering flash floods. Large amounts of water end up in mountain lakes that are growing as a result.
The water deficit that Iran, Iraq and Syria experienced in 2020 was intensified by a warm winter that continued into 2021. That meant lakes and reservoirs were not replenished before the hot summer months. The resulting drought affected up to 12 million people in Iraq and Syria, and 4.8 million in Iran, sparking deadly clashes in Khuzestan province.
Changing weather patterns have caused unprecedented amounts of water to fall in very short periods, resulting in devastating flooding. In 2021, floods in Western Europe killed 219 people and caused up to €46 billion worth of damage.
Turkey, Afghanistan, India and China’s Henan province were also affected by flooding that killed more than 1,500 people. It was a stark reminder that the effects of climate change are felt everywhere.
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