The Colorado River drought is so bad you can see it from space. Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which supply drinking water to millions of people in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, and California, are each currently down to just 27% of their capacity, a near-complete collapse from being 95% full in 2000. In China, record heatwaves and drought have dried up the Yangtze River. Yale Environment 360 is warning that the drying up of Europe’s great rivers, which function as the arteries of the continent's economy, could be the new normal. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, or about four billion people, suffer from severe water scarcity for at least one month each year, and half of the global population could face water scarcity by just 2025.
This is terrifying for a wide number of reasons. We’ve all heard that water is life, and most of us can’t fathom our day-to-day tasks without abundant potable water at the twist of a tap. But water scarcity isn’t just water scarcity. It’s food scarcity and energy scarcity too. Scientists and academics are increasingly approaching issues of food, water, and energy not as separate fields of study and development but as one water-energy-food nexus which is inherently interdependent and interrelated. We can’t hope to address the crises facing any of these sectors without discussing all of them.
Climate change poses an enormous and unprecedented threat to water, energy, and food, at the same time that demand for all three is steadily increasing. The current drought conditions around the globe are putting enormous pressure on the nexus and squeezing the energy supply even tighter amid a worldwide energy crisis spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic and compounded by the Russian war in Ukraine. The lack of water has devastated hydropower sectors and limited the navigability of waterways that are central to global supply chains of fossil fuels and cooling nuclear energy plants.
Just this summer, a Swiss nuclear facility scaled back operations as the volume of cooling water in the Aare river was so low that the temperatures were growing dangerous for the local wildlife. In France, several nuclear reactors were similarly shut down, but because the dwindling and warmed waters of the Rhône and Garonne were simply unable to cool the systems of nuclear power plants – and that’s just the latest in a series of unfortunate events for the beleaguered French nuclear sector this year. And all along the Rhine, barges that carry coal and oil to millions of people are waylaid.
The timing of this blow to Europe's already tenuous and tight energy supply could not be worse. As Russia plays a cat-and-mouse game with the European Union by conveniently experiencing “infrastructural issues” with its pipelines every time the bloc makes a political agreement that doesn’t agree with Putin, Europe is staring down the barrel of a long, cold winter with insufficient energy supply.
Meanwhile, in China, a prolonged and severe drought in the Sichuan province – which was also rocked by a magnitude 6.6 earthquake last week – has slammed the brakes on the hydropower industry that much of the nation depends on. To fill the gap, China has begun to burn even more coal, fueling the very greenhouse gas emissions that contributed to the drought in the first place in a vicious cycle. While experts argue that the real lesson to be learned here is to diversify your energy mix, many Chinese people have instead become distrustful of hydropower and renewables in general.
Meanwhile, these water and energy troubles fuel a third looming crisis: a global food shortage. Remember that water-energy-food nexus? Soaring gas prices have caused a critical fertilizer shortage, which, coupled with a water shortage, spells serious trouble for agricultural yields.
Yes, the prognosis is grim. But the nexus approach also brings hope. The growing recognition of the interconnectedness of these problems also sheds new light on the potential for synergistic, long-term solutions instead of stopgap measures that fail to see the bigger picture. And these challenging times have made many people increasingly aware of the preciousness of these resources that once seemed infinitely abundant.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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