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Warming foretells of 'water wars,' deaths

scientists: Canadian Prairies singled out as region set to suffer droughts
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Margaret Munro, CanWest News Service
Published: Thursday, November 17, 2005

Severe water shortages loom in many regions of the world, including the Canadian Prairies, say scientists who warn a sixth of the Earth's population relies on water from glaciers and snow packs that are disappearing.

The Prairies are in line for more frequent and prolonged droughts in coming decades that could put agriculture at risk, says a report by leading climate and water researchers. They also say Canadians will face "heightened competition" for the dwindling water supply. Not only do wetlands and lakes need water, but commitments to thirsty and energy-hungry Americans will have to be met.

Under a 1969 agreement, Alberta must allow half of stream-flow to cross the border, says the report, one of three climate-related papers in the journal Nature today, two of them dealing with water and one with human health.

The deaths of an estimated 150,000 people a year can already be attributed to the extreme weather and medical problems associated with climate change, says the health report. Heat waves and the spread of disease-causing microbes and insects are forecast to take a bigger toll in coming decades.

The reports are depressing but important, says climate scientist John Smol at Queen's University. "People don't want to hear bad news. Well, get used to it." There will be no replacing the water that is pouring off the world's mountains as glaciers melt and snow-packs shrink, he says in discussing "the coming water wars."

"These are nature's water towers we are losing," says Smol. "People are fighting over things like oil now. Just imagine when they start fighting over something that there is no substitute for."

The new reports stress climate change is already underway, and spell out how things could become much worse.

The consequences of the "hydrological changes for future water availability -- predicted with high confidence and already diagnosed in some regions -- are likely to be severe," write climatologist Tim Barnett of California's Scripps Institute of Oceanography and his colleagues.

The most critical vanishing glaciers are in the Himalaya-Hindu Kush region, home of the third-largest ice mass on Earth -- one exceeded only by the glaciers in Antarctic and Greenland/Arctic. "There is little doubt that the glaciers of the [Himalaya-Hindu Kush] region are melting," the report notes, pointing to a recent inventory of the glaciers that supply much of Asia, India and China with water in the summer months.

It warns parts of these most populated regions on Earth are likely to run out of water during the dry season if current warming and glacial melting trends continue. The shortages could be abrupt.

Retreating glaciers in the Andes pose a challenge in South America, where glacial runoff feeds into rivers that supply water and hydroelectric power to large populations.

The threats in Europe and North America relate more to snow. In the warming world, the scientists say snow packs and spring run-off could become a thing of the past in much of the region feeding Europe's Rhine River, dramatically altering the seasonal flow of water for agriculture, industry and domestic use.

DEATH, DISEASE FROM CLIMATE CHANGE

- Europe's two-week heatwave in 2003 is one of the most striking examples of the heath risk associated with climate change. There were an estimated 22,000 to 45,000 heat-related deaths. Scientists believe it was probably Europe's hottest summer in more than 500 years.

- More than 150,000 deaths a year from diarrhea, malaria, cardiovascular disease and malnutrition are linked to global warming.

- Higher than average temperatures contribute to an estimated 30 per cent of reported cases of salmonellosis, a food-born infectious disease, in continental Europe.

- Africa is at risk for substantial increases in climate-sensitive diseases such as malaria.
© The Vancouver Sun 2005

 

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