In Africa, thirsty communities hit by increasingly irregular rainfall are installing water harvesting systems and building new dams to capture downpours and store the water for use in dry periods.
These measures, widely promoted by governments and development groups, are considered some of the cheapest and most promising ways of dealing with worsening water scarcity.
But what happens when stored water sits uncovered, or tanks aren’t properly managed? Worsening outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever as mosquitoes find new breeding grounds close to people’s homes, warns Kirstie Ebi, a professor of global health at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health.
Health officials need to be a much bigger part of decisions about how to reduce and deal with the effects of climate change, so they can point out potential problems and avoid unintended consequences of measures to adapt, Ebi said.
“These challenges are asking us to step up and think differently about how we work together” with different sections of governments and organisations, she told an international conference on health and climate change in Geneva this week. The issue today, she said, is that “we have 21st century problems and 20th century institutions.”
She described climate change as a “wicked” problem for health officials – one that is very difficult or impossible to solve. Those battling it face incomplete, contradictory and often changing information, and are left with situations where solving one part of the problem can make other parts worse.
“Climate change is an issue we will not solve,” she told health officials from across the world at the conference. “This is an issue we are going to be managing throughout our lifetimes and our children’s lifetimes and probably beyond that … We can only do better or worse.”
What health officials need to focus on, she said, is trying to make decisions and take actions “that address not only current risks but give flexibility to address future risks and increase our number of options.”
A wide range of climate impacts – particularly more extreme weather and changing rainfall patterns – are already having a big impact on health, with further problems expected ahead, she said.
Flooding, for instance, is becoming much more frequent around the world, particularly as urban populations surge and informal settlements spring up in low-lying areas. Now floods that once happened once every 100 years are happening every 10 years, “and in some places even more often,” she said.
“What is now rare will become commonplace,” she warned. “How do we get people to understand it will no longer be a rare event?”
Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also suggest “there’s a very high risk for water insecurity in many places,” with river flows expected to fall in places like southern Europe, western Brazil, the southeast United States and western Australia, among others, Ebi said.
The rate at which groundwater is being recharged also is declining in southwest African countries, in Brazil, and in many parts of northern and eastern Africa.
Water insecurity and worsening drought will also affect food security and the ability to grow crops in many places. And changes in ocean temperatures are driving fish like tuna further east in the Pacific, threatening countries that rely on tuna fisheries for jobs and calories from protein.
Getting policies right to address these problems is key, Ebi warned. Otherwise, “we’re the ones who end up cleaning up the messes when poor choices are made.”