Over the last few weeks heatwaves and droughts have been striking various global regions. The west of the United States, the south of Brazil, and the Middle East are just a few places where infrastructure, social, and natural systems are currently coping with climate extremes. The scientific community believes that In Brazil, the droughts of this year the worst in a century and in the United States the last few years are the worst in 1,200 years.
The initial consequences of these droughts are struggling water systems. In the United Stated, Lake Mead - the reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam, the largest reservoir in the country – has been declared under historic shortage. This has triggered unprecedented water cuts in most of the Southwest US affecting major economic sectors. In Brazil, the five interconnected reservoirs that form the Cantareira system, which supplies water to cities such as Sao Paolo, is operating at 40% its capacity. Reservoirs in countries such as Iran, Iraq and Lebanon are reporting critically low water levels.
Failing water systems then have ramifications with major economic sectors such as food and energy. Here the immediate impacts may be expressed beyond the local level and could reach national and transboundary scales. In Brazil, failing hydropower production would cause a 15 percent increase in electricity bills. Also, food prices, particularly of sugar and cocoa, have been going up as result of less available water for irrigation. Overall, higher food and energy prices are believed to raise the country’s inflation by 8 points. In Iraq, failing crops are lowering farmers’ incomes, while augmenting the dependence on food and water imports. Critical power shortages and unreliable regional interconnections in both Iraq and Lebanon are afflicting households and businesses, which cannot afford private generators.
From here, implications of fragile local water systems may scale-up. Extreme local drought conditions in Brazil may also threaten international food security. Particularly for regions such as the Middle East and North Africa that largely depends on food imports.
Moreover, a less responsive hydroelectricity sector, along with a spike in demand for energy, may hinder climate mitigation, decarbonization and energy transition efforts. Energy needs that cannot be met by hydropower would be replaced by other fuels. Often the alternatives are less-carbon friendly or more socially controversial sources. For example, California is already delaying the retirement of various gas-fired power plants, while the feasibility of closing its nuclear plants by 2025 has been questioned. Brazil is also responding to its energy needs by using more expensive and more carbon-intensive power plants run by gas, diesel, or coal to make up for lost hydroelectricity. In fact, as a response to the energy shortages, Brazil last June reached its highest ever levels of natural liquified gas imports.
An increasingly interconnected and changing world where local water risks have profound and global impacts, in turn requires a new perspective in the water sector. This new approach must include:
Expand the horizon of water systems
Water and interconnected systems are often examined through local lenses where their reach is seen up to the immediate benefit (or danger) they bring. The elaborated composition of modern societies and economies require this horizon to be expanded. For instance, the extent by which droughts in Brazil affect food security and inflation in food-importing countries requires to re-imagine the true geographic boundaries of what is understood as a water system.
Think beyond hydroclimatological and infrastructure components
Expanding the boundaries of the water sector also requires to carefully incorporate interconnections that water brings to the societal, economic, and institutional spheres. For instance, how water and climate shocks may affect energy transformation efforts or indeed, energy security goals, require a redefinition of what is a resilient energy-water system. This requires reconciling water security and climate resilience frameworks with fields of international trade and relations, food and energy, country-level socio-economic goals, and an overall examination of systematic interdependencies.
Acknowledge the changing and uncertain characteristics that water and interconnected sectors face
Droughts are not the only climate-water risks. In the past few months, the resilience of socio-economic systems has been tested against unprecedented floods in Belgium, China, Germany, and other countries. Just last February, the critical links between climate-energy and water supply were also tested during the unexpected cold wave in Texas. Yet, the mid and long-term characteristics of water risks are difficult to predict, especially in a changing climate. This emphasizes the need of planning water and interdependent systems acknowledging the diversity of risks and drivers of change (even those beyond climate) and proposing solutions that are robust in terms of the plausible futures they might face.