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The other Copenhagen conference

It isn’t on the bargaining table in Copenhagen this week, but the world is facing a crisis of a different sort that affects (and is affected by) climate change and greenhouse gas emissions: water scarcity.

‘I think on water, we are maybe four years behind where we are on climate change – it has not yet seeped down into the consciousness of the majority of people or our political leaders,’ says Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and Senior Adviser on Water to the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly,
who spoke at the Kilmaforum09 alternate climate conference in Copenhagen yesterday.

Barlow, joined by eight scientists and water activists, spoke for three hours to demonstrate an incredibly unappreciated point: water is not simply affected by climate change, but the way we misuse it is in fact a major cause of climate change.

‘This is not appreciated by the people in the negotiations, or even by most climate change scientists,’ said Barlow. ‘If we don’t include water in a climate change framework, we will never be able to prevent runaway climate change.’
Politicians, scientists, NGOs and policymakers widely appreciate that water is affected by climate change: higher temperatures and changing precipitation patterns (along with population growth, deforestation and diversion of water for dams, urbanization and industry) will mean that by 2025 more than two thirds of the world’s population will have to deal with chronic water shortages, according to the UN World Water Assessment Program. And – like climate change – water issues could worsen quicker than we think: already a third of the world’s population suffers from water scarcity, when less than a decade ago it was thought we wouldn’t reach that point until 2025.

But the way we use (and waste) water has a profound impact on climate change – so much so, the panel argued, that even if we take every measure to reduce our carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 (the level most scientists advocate), we could still see ourselves pushed into ‘runaway’ climate change by its effects. ‘This is due to the fact
that we move water around in the same way as we do oil and gas, but people are just not as aware of this,’ says Barlow.

Simple example: Australia is suffering from chronic drought, which is typically attributed to climate change, but it could just as easily be attributed to water allocation. Shifting water from the river Darling to fields to grow cotton, wheat and wine (which is then exported, removing water from the continent) means there is less water in the river to evapo-transpirate and fall back to the continent as rain.

Drained marshes, overdrawn groundwater and depleted riversheds the world over reduce the ability of natural ‘carbon sinks’ – like forests, wetlands, and peat – to absorb carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. In fact, these carbon sinks can themselves turn into carbon sources if they become too dry – forest fires are an increasingly major contributor to the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and ultimately to climate change.

Moreover, many of the solutions being put forward to abate climate change themselves exacerbate water shortages: biofuels consume enormous quantities of fresh water to produce (and do not actually mitigate climate change – and by their profligate consumption of water, exacerbate climate change even more.

‘We need to stop talking about water, climate, food, and energy separately – otherwise we will never solve this crisis,’ says Barlow.