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Analysis predicts dry cities, owing to climate change

20 May 2022

London, Cape Town, Beijing, and Sydney at risk of running out of water, says Christian Aid


Lightning strikes over London on Wednesday night, after the Met Office issued weather warnings for the ongoing heatwave

Lightning strikes over London on Wednesday night, after the Met Office issued weather warnings for the ongoing heatwave

CITIES are already running out of water as the climate crisis forces people to migrate to urban areas, and existing means of supply fail, new analysis has shown.

Currently, 55 per cent of the world’s population live in urban areas, but this is set to rise to 68 per cent by 2050.

The Chilean capital, Santiago, introduced water rationing last month as the city authorities responded to a 13-year drought. It is estimated that the city’s water supply could fall by a half in the next few decades.

London, Cape Town, Beijing, and Sydney are all at risk of running out of water, analysis by Christian Aid has found.

Their report Scorched Earth warns that London and the south-east of England could run dry in the next 25 years, as a growing population and more frequent and intense heatwaves overwhelm the capital’s ageing water-supply system. The Environment Agency has said that, by 2050, some rivers will have 50 to 80 per cent less water during the summer.

Cape Town was forced to take drastic measures to stop the city running dry in 2018, limiting households to 50 litres a day. The advent of heavy rains meant that the city narrowly avoided “day zero”, when it would have run out of water.

Dr Friederike Otto, a senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College, London, carried out a study into the 2018 drought in Cape Town. She said: “Changing rainfall and higher temperatures — the result of greenhouse-gas emissions — are making drought more common and more severe in parts of the world. As we saw in Cape Town, when it nearly reached ‘day zero’ in 2018, this can add up to catastrophic water shortages even for some major cities.

“Our study of that event found climate change made the drought about three times more likely to occur. Until net greenhouse-gas emissions are halted, the risk of drought threatening cities’ water supply will keep growing.”

China has begun to build a huge system of canals to transport water from the south to the drier cities in the north, including Beijing, but scientists believe that this this may not be enough to solve the city’s water crisis.

In Sydney, severe drought between 2017 and 2020 halved the amount of water in the reservoirs, and a draft water strategy, published by the New South Wales government, concluded that extreme weather caused by climate change meant that traditional water-supply methods would suffice in future.

Other cities that are described as running dry include Kabul, São Paulo, Harare, Phoenix, New Delhi, and Cairo.

Drought is also one of the factors driving the conflict in Ukraine, the report notes, in particular in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. Ukraine responded to the annexation by diverting the North Crimean channel, which supplies 85 per cent of the region’s water, heightening tensions with Russia.

Conflicts over water are also on the rise elsewhere in the world, and have risen sharply since 1990, the report says.

A co-author of the report, Nushrat Rahman Chowdhury, of Christian Aid, said: “Drought is not new, but its intensity and frequency have increased over the last 30 years due to global warming. It is a real danger; it threatens lives and livelihoods of some of the poorest people in the world.

“These are communities which have done the least to cause the climate crisis. This is the reality known as loss and damage. To address this injustice, we not only need emissions cut, but also to provide financial support for those losses which cannot be adapted to. That is why, at this year’s UN climate talks in Egypt, we are calling for the creation of a loss-and-damage finance facility to be a major priority.”

COP27 is due to take place in November in Sharm el-Sheikh.

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