Water Crisis: The Role Of Mountain Water Towers
For generations upon generations, high mountain areas around the world have supplied people with drinking water, thanks to the steady melting of snow during the warmer months.
These mountainous areas are often described as water towers, providing the resources necessary for drinking, as well as irrigation and energy generation, while protecting regions during periods of drought.
However, these essential resources are now being put under increasing pressure from climate change, with glaciers around the world now thinning and starting to retreat, as we see shifting rainfall patterns and hotter temperatures in line with global warming.
Glacier shrinkage means that there’s less water stored in these water towers – and this could ultimately put communities and people at serious risk of water shortages.
In fact, a recent study published in the Nature journal found that 1.9 billion people – or a quarter of the world’s population – are now at risk from mountain water shortages, as are half the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
Bethan Davies from Royal Holloway University and one of the authors of the report was quoted by the Guardian as saying: “It’s not just happening far away in the Himalayas but in Europe and the US, places not usually thought to be reliant on mountains for people or the economy.”
The study found that the Indus is the most important and the most vulnerable of all the world’s water towers, with runoff coming from the Karakoram, Ladakh, Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountain ranges and flowing into a basin in India, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It’s expected that this water tower will not be able to withstand the growing pressure it’s facing by the middle of the century, when temperatures are predicted to climb by 1.9 degrees and rainfall to rise by less than two per cent.
Although Asian river basins do face the biggest demands, the study also confirmed that other continents are facing an increase in similar pressure.
In fact, the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Spain is now also starting to show signs of distress, long-term trends having been observed in changing conditions, such as decreasing annual precipitation, snow loss, increasing warming, pollution and so on.
Such trends are in line with increased ice loss in lakes across the Northern Hemisphere, according to researchers from the Smart EcoMountains project.
As EOS reports, this ice loss, coupled with reduced winter ice, has resulted in greater variability in water flow year on year… and southern Spain has also been experiencing increasingly milder winters in recent years, as well as hotter springs and more heatwaves during summer.
Deteriorating water quality has also been seen in the Sierra Nevada watershed over the last few decades, being driven by more periods of drought and increased abstraction of water by people.
These observations on the mountains and downstream were found to be similar to those seen in global mountain ecosystems, such as the Himalayas, the Rockies and the Andes.
In the Sierra Nevada, the good news is that there are various education and conservation projects now ongoing, covering rivers, streams and high mountain lakes in the watershed.
In all, there are 13 active river naturalisation projects now underway, with the aim being to restore biodiversity and improve natural hydraulic flowers.
While these focus primarily on downstream and urban parts of rivers, the 74 High Mountain Glacial-Lake Oases project is being coordinated by the University of Granada, a community science campaign that focuses on promoting eco-friendly practices in mountain headwater ecosystems, which is where water towers recharge, sustain mountain biodiversity and provide downstream ecosystems benefits.
Citizen science projects such as these could prove to be particularly beneficial in the fight against climate change and the water crisis, since it has been found that they can encourage wider engagement and support the introduction of sustainable water policies.
The researchers noted that mountain water towers around the world are often overlooked as strategic water resources, despite the fact that they help ensure steady flow of water each year, benefiting billions of people.
“As groundwater depletion continues unabated around the world, the value of mountain water towers to the water balance of downstream societies and ecosystems can only increase. It is time that mountain water towers receive their due protection at both the watershed and global scales,” it was observed.
To that end, it is welcome news that the Spanish government is now planning to afford greater protection to 41 aquifers in the Iberian Peninsula, seven of which are in Granada – including the 74 glacial lakes in the Sierra Nevada.
“Preserving mountain water towers is our best insurance policy for ensuring a steadier water supply and damping the growing tendency for floods and droughts as the climate increasingly warms and the water cycle wobbles ever more,” it was further noted.
Taking strong action now to limit global warming and keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees C will help ensure that most of the mountain glaciers and water towers around the world are protected, helping to prevent drought and flooding.
Sadly, it seems that this is unlikely to be the case, with research published last year by Climate Analytics indicating that the world is not on track for 1.5 degrees, with most countries still not enacting sufficient climate targets.
Limiting warming to below this is still possible, according to the organisation, but urgent and rapid action is needed now. This will need to include stringent emissions reductions in the very near term in a bid to halve projections for 2030 CO2 emissions.
These emissions will need to peak now if 1.5 degrees C pathways are to remain open and we’ll need to reach net zero by mid-century, followed quickly by total greenhouse gases in the second half of the century.
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