Climate change is transforming how we think about water. As the climate warms and weather patterns become more extreme, solutions to water pollution are increasingly important. The likelihood of more floods and droughts in the future makes it imperative that we transform current water systems to be more resilient.
Extreme weather patterns, along with increased consumption and contaminant levels, are wreaking havoc on our water supply. From household drinking water and agriculture to energy and transportation, we require a vast amount of water to make everyday events and lifestyles possible.
However, water pollution problems are only getting worse as the effects of climate change transform our planet. Fortunately, there are a few things we can do to mitigate these effects.
1. Innovative Food Systems
Agriculture is one of the largest consumers of freshwater all around the globe. Most of the water comes from rivers or groundwater. Unfortunately, groundwater supplies are not limitless, and climate change has revealed the dangers of relying on a finite resource. For example, the California droughts depleted underground aquifers to the point that many farmers completely ran out of water.
In addition to a shrinking water supply, dramatic shifts in temperature and precipitation increase the likelihood of pathogens in floodwater. While the weather is always unpredictable to some degree, the increasing likelihood of severe weather patterns of droughts and floods negatively impacts crop production, thereby increasing the cost of food.
These problems demonstrate the necessity to create a more resilient food system. Industrial agriculture is increasingly unsustainable, relying on energy resources that are vulnerable and using growing techniques that contribute to water pollution through the heavy use of pesticides.
To combat water pollution in a warming world, we need innovation within the food system. Sustainable farming methods such as regenerative agriculture have the potential to combat climate change and decrease water usage and water pollution.
2. Efficient Water Usage
Many of us are lucky enough to be able to turn on the faucet and have access to fresh drinking water. However, it is a privilege to access water freely without considering where it came from, and how it was treated and distributed. While there is an increasing level of environmental consciousness when it comes to taking shorter showers and not using the washer as often, we need significant changes to our water use habits.
Unfortunately, current methods for storing and distributing drinking water are extremely carbon-intensive, requiring fossil fuel energy to move water resources. A decrease in available drinking water means that water sources are more likely to have higher levels of contaminants, which in turn require more expensive treatment methods. While we may be able to avoid thinking about how our consumer habits impact water supply currently, it will be essential to use water more efficiently in the face of climate change.
Water usage trends will be necessary throughout all industries, including manufacturing, transportation and energy. These changes will also need to start at home. Wasting less water by watering our lawns and taking excessively long showers makes a difference, especially if we all make small changes to our everyday routines.
3. Climate-Proof Design
In the face of climate change, urban planners are working with scientists to find a way to build better cities. Most of the world’s population now lives in cities, making them the most important piece in a more sustainable future.
Cities are vulnerable to increasingly high amounts of runoff that cause untreated sewage to overflow into drinking water. These events are not only a threat to human health, but they are also expensive to fix. Innovative urban designs will be imperative to create more sustainable water treatment plans that account for unpredictable levels of precipitation.
The threat of a warming climate signals a need to implement preventative solutions, rather than fixing problems after events occur. Incorporating climate-proof design into future development will play a key role in more resilient urban areas that combat water pollution head-on.
4. Ecosystem Protection
Plastic pollution is one of the most egregious effects of human activity on the natural environment. In just a few short decades, plastic has impacted ecosystems all across the globe, from freshwater rivers to the middle of the ocean.
As the climate warms, it will be vital that we increase ecosystem protection. Plastic pollution affects human health and aquatic life. In order to combat water pollution, we need to ally with the natural world.
Extreme precipitation patterns not only impact surface runoff and urban flooding, but these weather shifts also affect ocean health. More intense storms increase the number of nutrients like nitrogen that run into coastal watersheds. Nitrogen contributes to algae growth by feeding algal blooms that wreak havoc on coastal ecosystems.
Phenomena such as the Great Atlantic Garbage Patch are humbling reminders of the impact of human activity on the environment. Water pollution issues aren’t going away, and sometimes they can seem too big to tackle. But if we strive to support a healthier ocean ecosystem, we can work with nature to find a sustainable solution.
5. Resilient Infrastructure
The impact of climate change on water supply levels and quality requires a paradigm shift in how decisions are made moving forward. For example, long-term decisions like building dams are no longer as stable, since future precipitation forecasts are unreliable.
The Earth Institute at Columbia University researched the effectiveness of green infrastructure, noting that parks and wetlands have a positive effect on filtering water contaminants and mitigating runoff from stormwater drains.
Implementing a resilient infrastructure is imperative in combating water pollution in urban and rural areas. Whether it is building a more resilient water reservoir for agricultural purposes or implementing green infrastructure within city blocks, developing more water-efficient infrastructure is paramount.
6. Transformative Policy
Policy changes are often required to implement large shifts in how we use, distribute and treat water. When it comes to environmental policy, we should focus on preventative action rather than remedial. For example, when it comes to agriculture, we can reduce the use of potential pollutants, such as pesticides.
Similarly, water pollution affects equitable access to drinking water. Less available water means the price of water goes up. Studies have shown that current projections for water rates will have significant economic impacts on U.S. households. If the cost of drinking water rises as estimated over the next few years, the percentage of U.S. households unable to pay their water bills could rise to 35.6%.
Implementing policies that support low-income and vulnerable communities will be necessary as water pollution impacts supply.
7. Consumer Education
Awareness is a precursor to caring. In order to protect the environment, we need to be aware of the issues we are creating together.
Informing the general public about how water pollution affects our society is vital. For example, educating consumers on the dangers of pharmaceuticals polluting drinking water can help prevent individuals from flushing old pills down the toilet. Consumer education will play a key role in protecting water supplies, especially as the impact of climate change worsens.
Sustaining Life in a Changing Climate
Almost everything we do on a daily basis requires water. It is the source of life, and it is energy for our homes, vehicles and computers. It is vital to healthy ecosystems, food systems and energy production.
In order to create a more resilient water system in the face of climate change, we need to think about holistic solutions. More efficient water usage, climate-proof design, transformative policy and ecosystem protection are just a few ways we can lessen the impact of water pollution in a warming world.