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In expert estimation as well as the popular imagination, we must brace for a water crisis as the fumes we emit warm up the world. Adapting to climate change, thus, requires us to track global water resources. The release this week of a report on these by the Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the first audit of its kind, tells us how we are placed. Or, rather, how precariously so. The report offers an overview of river-flow volumes, apart from major floods and droughts, and also identifies ‘hotspots’ of change in freshwater storage, with our cryosphere of snow and ice in the spotlight for its vulnerability to melting in the global heat-trap created by our gas emissions. Since shrunken polar caps and rising sea levels have been familiar tropes, last year’s data might seem a bit out of place at first glance. In 2021, large parts of the planet were unusually dry, according to the report. Some of this can be pinned on La Niña, an oddity that pops up every few years to disrupt wind and rain patterns, but is largely an outcome of global warming, whose deprivations of water could get extremely severe as we go along. For countries like India, too little water could turn out to be a bigger worry than too much of it over the next few decades.

Indeed, in terms of the multitudes faced with water scarcity, this can be considered the great big threat. As of now, the WMO says 3.6 billion people have insufficient access to water for at least one month per year, a figure projected to exceed 5 billion by 2050. This means that more than three people would be short of water for every person at risk of floods by that point. Little wonder that CoP-27 held at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, urged governments to place high-priority emphasis on tackling dry-ups as part of their climate adaptation plans. While the WMO admits possible gaps in its water mapping, given its patchy access to verified hydrological data to validate what it gleaned from remotely sensed and modelled readings, it has enough data-points to present a bleak picture. African rivers saw weaker stream-flow last year, with the Niger, Volta, Nile and Congo all affected, with a similar squeeze seen in parts of Russia, west Siberia and Central Asia, while above-usual discharge was observed in southern Africa’s Zambezi and Orange rivers, as also a clutch of American, Chinese and north Indian rivers, with basins of the latter two particularly prone to floods. Meanwhile, rainfall deficiency cast its gloom in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia last year. India did not suffer much dryness, but monsoon coverage going awry could yet prove painful in time to come.

The scarcity dashboard that we must watch closely is that of terrestrial water storage (i.e. on the land’s surface and just under it). Last year’s data clubs north India and Pakistan among the regions marked as ‘below normal’ in comparison with their 2002-2020 average, with a vast zone of severe groundwater depletion common to both. The Gangetic and Indus systems also feature on the WMO’s ‘hotspot’ list of rapid deterioration. Both originate in the Himalayas, but differ in their cryospheric outlook: the former system’s flow is fed mostly by rain and far less by ice-melt, which spells both less scope for warming-led river spates in the future and a lower likelihood of thinning out. Of course, we have our own water audits, but the WMO has given us a welcome wider view. Its new report should push us to rescue the subcontinent’s northern water table, even engage Islamabad in aqua talks to that end.

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