Clean air, safe drinking water, and sufficient food supply are all increasingly at risk from extreme weather events as we advance into the 21st century. In the absence of government mandates, it’s incumbent upon U.S. industry to take precautionary actions like those outlined in the Paris Climate Agreements. Doing so will prevent the pervasive, irreversible consequences of climate change by allowing for adaptive management to changes over several decades. By implementing cost-effective measures, environmental and health degradation can be mitigated.
After a long struggle to contain a global rise in temperature, the largest international climate conference in history, the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), made commitments aimed to keep global warming below 2°C by developing The Paris Agreement. The multilateral agreement between 197 parties who came together to create a sustainable and dynamic action agenda seeks to prevent the escalation of climate change, but what about the impacts of deviations in weather patterns already in effect?
A common misconception regarding climate change is that it simply means the earth will get warmer, but the true definition reveals that the change is in the distribution of weather patterns around the world. Quite simply, wet areas will get wetter and dry areas will get drier. Climatologists are already seeing this pattern and predict more extreme weather events, sea levels rising, and warming oceans in the coming decades.
Policymakers typically structure environmental policies to stop worsening climate change, but the burden on water resources has already started being intensified. For every fraction of a degree the atmosphere is warmed, the hydrologic cycle is altering the intensity of precipitation—impacting both water quality and the safety of water sources.
We may soon see impacts on drinking water and ecosystems that will lead to ripple effects on our food supply as water quality and supply are jeopardized by climate change. Water quality is already diminishing due to increased sediment from heavy downpours. In some areas where competition for water is increasing, quantity is decreasing as short- and long-term droughts are gradually intensifying.
Skeptics often cite lack of scientific certainty as a reason for postponing action on climate change, but accumulating evidence is adding weight to the “better safe than sorry” argument. Early warnings of climate change ring the alarm bell for doing the bare minimum—just in case—as the economic consequences of doing nothing continue to mount. The U.S. weaning itself off fossil fuels is a clear first step in abating those consequences. The 97% chance that climate change is caused by human involvement is evidence decisions about energy profiles need to look differently from this point forward.
Our country has been one step behind Europe in creating energy efficient products and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through policy techniques such as carbon pricing and “cap and trade” agreements. If corporations were to get in front of potentially strict cap and trade agreements before they’re on the table, for example, they would be able to act gradually and economically, rather than abruptly with potential penalties for violations.
The removal of the U.S. from the Paris Climate deal came after President Trump talked skeptically of climate change—calling it a “con job” and a “myth.” But what are the costs of waiting for a permanent display of its authenticity? The U.S. is not tied to any international climate legislation since the withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, a decision that came with strong criticism both internationally and domestically and resulted in estrangement from our closest allies. States have taken up the Paris targets on their individual agendas, but not taking the opportunity to mitigate climate change at a national level could cost America.
Critics of climate change attest that legislation will negatively affect our strongest economic sources based in fossil fuels, but not leaning into the precautionary principle could lead to costs that could be mitigated in the inevitable fight for water resources.
The U.S. water infrastructure isn’t making the grade—in fact, it’s dangerously close to flunking. Best case scenario, leaky pipes continue to waste trillions of gallons of water every year. Worst case scenario, crises like the one in Flint, Michigan, are repeated all over the country.
The infrastructure for the pipes that carry drinking water across the country has a lifespan of less than 100 years, but those pipes were laid in the mid-20th century, without being adequately maintained. Currently, the money being used to maintain our water infrastructure accounts for only one-third of the water being consumed in the U.S. One-trillion dollars will be needed to maintain, repair, and expand the existing infrastructure over the next 25 years to ensure safe drinking water. Nearly half of this investment would go into the expansion of new pipes, but the majority would go toward replacement in those areas that do not have clean drinking water.
The most glaring example of a possible future for America has already been shown in Flint, Michigan. This significant structural water crisis developed into a health crisis in 2014 when lead from the pipes ended up in the drinking water. Later, disinfection byproducts and bacteria were also found in the water. Six months after E. coli and total coliform bacteria were confirmed in Flint’s water supply, they were found in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act when carcinogens were discovered. A year later, a state of emergency was declared, followed by a state probe, leading to involuntary manslaughter charges for five officials.
The crisis started after Flint, Michigan hired a new, temporary city manager who decided the way to buffer the water crisis was to transition their water source from Detroit, whose water came from Lake Huron, to the Flint River. The water in the Flint River water was extremely corrosive and caused the lead and heavy metals from the pipes to be dragged along with the water. Health officials do not believe that the children exposed to this water will be able to remove the lead from their systems during their lifetimes, which could cause neurological and other health effects. Following Flint, other cities in Michigan and Ohio, as well as many cities east of the Mississippi river, have been found to also have elevated lead levels.
ASCE Committee on America’s Infrastructure, a group of civil engineers across the country who assess data and reports from technical and industrial sectors, have recently developed modern water infrastructure criteria based on the following: capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience, and innovation. They then develop an infrastructure report card grading scale: A-Exceptional, fit for the future; B-Good, adequate for now; C-Mediocre, requires attention; D-Poor, at risk; F-Failing/Critical, unfit for purpose. Based on this scale, the U.S. water infrastructure was handed a “D.”
Recent estimates have revealed approximately 2.1 trillion gallons of water are lost per year because of leaks in infrastructure. Although the congressional and presidential campaigns in 2016 saw a lot of promises to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, when the opportunity to address the issue in front of Congress arose, reforms did not pass. Water infrastructure is becoming increasingly fragile, in parallel with the state of the nation’s water quality. The cost to fix this issue is significant, and there is a weighty funding gap that will grow increasingly expensive, as the rate is 3-10 times more to fix a pipe after it fails.
This issue has been, quite literally, out of sight. Water is something that we assume will always be there because we haven’t experienced anything else. Every day we waste water, but when will this issue be resolved? Can the United States prevent a “day zero” crisis?
Most Americans take it for granted that clean water will flow every time they turn on the tap. But imagine turning on the news and hearing that your community was running out of water.
That’s exactly what’s happening in Cape Town, South Africa, where an entire modern city has been on the verge of running dry. Only recently has the situation been stabilized, and only after slashing individual water usage by half.
How could this disaster have been prevented? South Africa has an extensive network of wastewater treatment plants, but 60% of these facilities do not meet the discharge requirements (limits on pollutant parameters, protection of sewerage systems, requirements to control sludge discharge, etc.) and 44% have opted for less suitable technologies when considering their water capacity and effluent quality requirements.
For years, the water supply in South Africa has been shrinking while the water quality has been deteriorating as the demand for water grows in cities, which leads to a dependence on water sources farther afield. This increased need for water is a result of both population growth and increased industrial demand.
Africa has about 9% of the world’s freshwater resources, but their water management policies and implementations have led to the continent having less fresh water per person than any country in the Middle East or Asia (areas usually thought of as water-scarce). Under those circumstances, water is too valuable to be used just once. And although Africa is the most glaring example of unsustainable water practices, the problem isn’t only there—for example, 54% of India’s groundwater wells are decreasing, while 60% of their aquifers are in critical condition.
This is a growing global concern. Access to clean water can be a stabilizing as well as a destabilizing force. By learning from these examples and changing preconceived notions of wastewater treatment, responsible policies combined with wastewater treatment and reuse technology can assist in making it a stabilizing force.