When it Comes to Water, Minimizing Climate Impacts is Critical for Human Health

By path2positive

It’s easy to be fooled that warmer winters and less rainfall are some of climate change’s more pleasant outcomes. Who doesn’t love rain-free picnics and less ice on their windshields? But the impacts of these temporary seasonal surprises can be devastating for our water supply. Health professionals know first-hand the importance of clean water for human health. It is necessary for maintaining internal temperatures, lubricating and cushioning joints, protecting our spinal cords and other sensitive tissues, and getting rid of wastes through urination and perspiration, among other key functions. From an early age, we learn that water is essential to life. It should come as no surprise, then, that health professionals are summoning one another to advocate for climate protections. Water's availability is under siege, and our health depends on it.

Treating the Problem Is Not Equivalent to Finding a Solution

When a heat wave hits, water’s critical. When we’re exercising, we’re told to drink. When we’re sick, our doctors insist we get plenty of fluids. In every case, water is key to staying cool and hydrated. These are all sensible, reactionary responses to physiological issues that occur regularly in life. Similarly, with worldwide warming, our dependence on air conditioning has risen. Ironically, our society’s loss of control of the external climate parallels an increased need to maintain indoor temperatures. This is why, across much of America, climate control has become a necessity. Alas, water cooling stations and A/C are not long term solutions to our warming climate.  

Let’s be clear – hydration and cooling are certainly important medical responses that save lives. But stabilizing global temperatures and ensuring a sufficient water supply would be longer-term solutions. For the most part, these are not the top priority goals of health practitioners. Why? Because the medical community – a community that has existed for decades, preceding our common understanding of climate change – has been trained to respond to immediate physical distress. But what if we could change this? What if we could focus on broader solutions than responding to injury and illness? Clearly this preventative approach would fall within the mandate of medical professionals. Preventing disease is the ultimate goal of good medicine. After all, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of a cure,” as Benjamin Franklin has said. If climate change is an emergency, medical communities must prioritize it. And doing so would reduce the need for patient care, which is never a bad thing, particularly in light of the forecasted shortage of medical professionals

Farmers Are Nature’s First Responders

Hydration for the human body is akin to a farmer’s irrigation system. In fact, little do they know, but because farmers provide water – the lifeline of our food supply – they have historically served a critical role in protecting our nutritional wellbeing. When our food supply is unstable, our health is imperiled. In Middle America, the Ogallala aquifer, which has for years brought freshwater to states from South Dakota to Texas, is drying up. Farmers in the Ogallala territory are now facing the tough decision of reducing the consumption of water and therefore protecting the aquifer, or profoundly affecting food markets. This decision will grow harder as the need for worldwide food production increases by nearly 70 percent by 2050, according to predictions by the United Nations.

Of course, the quality of our water is also a concern when it comes to climate change. Cryptosporidiosis, cholera, and harmful algal blooms are a few of the problems that occur as a result of poor water conditions. Without doubt, neither farmer nor health professionals want to deal with the repercussions of polluted water on the world.

Taking action can be empowering, and there are steps that farmers can take to help alleviate the threats of climate change. Carbon farming is one of these. Since burning fossil fuels places carbon, once buried in the earth, into the atmosphere, carbon farming offers a way to reverse some of that damage. Carbon farming involves implementing land conservation techniques that are known to improve the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to organic matter. Trapped in the soil, carbon cannot cause the same levels of global warming. The carbon also serves as a sort of fertilizer for crops, which offers an added benefit.  

Graphic credit: https://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/impacts/water.html

The Hidden Pot of H2O

Evidently, there’s a spot on the globe that harbors a critical mass of the world’s glaciers – 46,000 to be more precise – that few of us have heard about. [Glaciers = fresh water supply.] Referred to as the Third Pole, and located deep in the Himalayas, its name implies a relationship to the North and South poles. The third child of Mother Earth, per se.  Scientists note that the Third Pole is functioning as the canary in the coal mine, as its condition is a major predictor of global water supplies. The weather that surrounds the Third Pole has a great impact on its environmental health – when the climate is unseasonably warm, the water supply is diminished.  And, as the ABC has pointed out, “Despite its relative anonymity, the Third Pole is vitally important; it is the source of Asia's 10 largest rivers including the Yellow, the Yangzi, the Mekong, the Irrawaddy and the Ganges — and their fertile deltas.”  So, we’re not talking a hidden inlet or creek, we’re talking major world water supply.

The last 50 years of research shows that the Third Pole’s temperature has doubled compared to the global temperature rise. This has resulted in the disappearance of 500 glaciers and, as you can imagine, many more are on their way out. Tapping into climate solutions geared toward reducing vehicle exhaust and industry emissions will have a direct effect on saving much of the world’s water supply. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the quality and availability of our global water supplies is dependent on the amount of carbon emissions that we produce. In other words, this is where humans have control.

Time to Get Creative

ecoAmerica is one of hundreds of organizations across the country, in addition to thousands of advocates, working to combat climate change. Clearly, there’s not one silver bullet to this sweeping dilemma. Melding minds and streamlining resources may offer the most efficient climate solutions. This will mean cross-sector collaboration, and a willingness to engage with others who are unlike us (probably a healthy assignment for our currently divided country anyway).  Water has overlapping significance for a multitude of professions, and can be used as a means of expanding discussion on the topic of climate change.

What’s more, climate change presents us with a host of health threats ranging from air pollution to increasing allergies and mental health impacts. So safeguarding our water supply, albeit substantial, is only one of the many reasons that medical professionals ought to focus on climate solutions.

It’s time we addressed root causes. The heat, the dry climate, and the poor water quality are not going away on their own. Though scientists, farmers, and health providers have very different work environments, they are all capable of nursing us back to health.


Anna Linakis Baker, Writer and Social Media Manager for Climate for Health, has worked in the field of environmental health for over 15 years. She graduated from Georgetown University with a major in creative writing and has a Master of Public Health from Boston University. Email her at [email protected]

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