Our climate system is undergoing some of the most dramatic changes to have occurred in recent earth history. Carbon dioxide concentrations have spiked at an unprecedented rate of increase since the Industrial Revolution, reaching levels higher than in at least 400, 000 years.
There is a wide consensus among climate scientists that global average temperature will rise considerably in response to this post-industrialization spike in greenhouse gases. Despite what is still not fully understood about the complex climate system, researchers now argue that the probability of temperature increases in the range of 2 to 7°C over the next century is relatively insensitive to the uncertainties about specific atmospheric processes (Roe and Baker, 2007).
Water and wastewater utilities are likely to be challenged by the effects of climate change in ways that go beyond the rising global temperatures and associated sea level rise. The physical models currently available predict vast and non-uniform changes in precipitation across the globe, with some regions getting wetter and others getting dryer. Model results also point to increases in the frequency of extreme climatic events such as floods and droughts. Meanwhile, familiar seasonal patterns of precipitation are already showing signs of shifts, with potentially dire consequences for water availability.
Water and wastewater infrastructure are vulnerable to these changes, with risks highest among utilities that are financially struggling, particularly in the developing world:
Indeed, water utilities in the developing world are still struggling with old and persistent problems of water management and sustainable delivery of services … the importance of forward-looking approaches to the climate challenge is greater for the institutionally and financially weak utilities.
Danilenko et. al (2010)
World Bank Water Working Note #24
A recent World Bank analysis of the climate change threats faced by water utilities points out that service providers in wealthier nations “are now beginning to identify strategic policy directions based on monitoring, analysis and the global circulation models (GCM) of possible climate change scenarios” (Danilenko et al, 2010).
At the same time, planning for these changes is extraordinarily complex. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council recognized in a 2011 report that American “water sector utilities are overwhelmed with climate change information and lack of coordination by federal agencies, state agencies, and other water sector actors…[and] water utility officials are struggling with the number and volume of climate change studies being produced by many different federal and state agencies, water associations, universities, and other organizations.” EPA’s Climate Ready Water Utilities initiative now administers an online toolbox that provides extensive resources, ranging from publications and reports to tools and models and even funding opportunities.
Though climate change is happening at global scale, its effects will manifest themselves locally. An essential part of planning for the challenges of global warming is assessment of the vulnerability of individual utilities, which is in turn a function of both specific local and regional risks and the institutional capacity to operate effectively in the face of climate uncertainty. Vulnerability assessment requires, among other tasks, long-term data collection.
Aquaya’s work to improve data collection and management by water utilities is intended to improve operational performance, but an important additional benefit will be to help utilities adapt to regional changes in climate. The more that utilities understand and optimize their current operations, the more prepared they will be to adjust to changes in water availability, quality, and demand that a changing climate will bring.