Vulnerable Mountain “Water Towers” Could Impact 1.9 Billion People Globally
Wed, April 14, 2021

Vulnerable Mountain “Water Towers” Could Impact 1.9 Billion People Globally

Mountains are called nature's water towers because they store water in different ways. They force the air to rise and condense into clouds, which then form moisture that provides snow and rain / Photo by: Max Pixel

 

Mountains are called nature's water towers because they store water in different ways. They force the air to rise and condense into clouds, which then form moisture that provides snow and rain. During warmer periods, ice and snow melt and become a precious resource of water.

Mountain As S Source of Water

A new study, however, finds that the nature’s water towers are now in trouble and it could negatively impact 1.9 billion people globally who are relying on freshwater supply. Mountains are highly prone and sensitive to climate change, the authors highlighted. Yet, such vulnerability has not been quantified in a study on a worldwide scale. This gave them the idea to present the worldwide Water Tower Index, ranking all water towers based on the downstream dependence of the society and ecosystem as well as the water-supplying role of the mountains.

Water Tower Index

The most relied upon water tower worldwide is the Indus mountain system located in Asia. The Indus water tower is comprised of the vast areas of the Himalayan mountain and portions of Pakistan, India, China, and Afghanistan. By water tower, the team means mountains acting as water supply and storage to sustain human and environmental water demands downstream. 

Of the 78 global water towers the team has identified, the following are the most relied-upon water systems by continent: 

-South America: North Chile, La Puna region, Negro, South Argentina, South Chile
-North America: Pacific and Arctic Coast, North America-Colorado, Saskatchewan-Nelson, Columbia and Northwest United States, Fraser
-Europe: CaspianSea Coast, Black Sea North Coast, Rhine, Po, Rhône
-Asia: Ganges-Brahmaputra, Syr Darya, Amu Darya, Tarim, and Indus

The research was authored by 32 scientists from different countries and was led by Dr. Arthur Lutz and Prof. Walter Immerzeel, both from the Faculty of Geosciences, Department of Physical Geography at Utrecht University. These two are longtime researchers of climate change and water in high mountains in Asia. 

Professor Immerzeel said via press release site PR Newswire that what’s unique about their research is that they assessed the importance of the water towers not only to consider how much water they provide and store but also how much mountain water is provided downstream as well as how vulnerable the water tower system has become. The study considered how vulnerable communities are going to be to the possible changes that will happen in a few decades.

Assessing the Water Tower’s Vulnerability

The researchers said that they assessed the vulnerability of the water tower by considering the water stress, future socio-economic and climatic changes, hydro political tension, and governance.

Identifying Key Basins

Dr. Lutz pointed out that they determined the key basins by assessing the glacial water towers found in the world and their findings can raise awareness of what should be on the top of global and regional political agendas. The study was supported by Swiss luxury watch manufacturer Rolex and the National Geographic as part of their partnership called Perpetual Planet. Their partnership aims to preserve the environment and support exploration and science.

The National Geographic Society’s chief scientist and executive vice president Jonathan Baillie said that mountains are sacred and iconic places but the significant role they play in sustaining life on the planet is “not well understood.” Baillie added that the research will help local and global level decision makers on actions that should be prioritized to protect the mountain systems, the people who depend on these mountains, and the resources they offer to people.

The study concludes that the most important water towers in the world are now among the most vulnerable and that socio-economic and climatic changes will profoundly affect them, impacting 1.9 billion people living in mountain areas and directly downstream. “Immediate action is required,” they recommended.

Even the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations states that mountains are “fragile ecosystems.” The vertical nature of the mountains, such as its plateaus, peaks, projections, and contours, is making their surface unstable. The FAO believes that human activities can help tip the balance of the mountain ecosystem. Whatever happens in the watersheds upland also has a “massive impact” on the areas downstream.

Water Scarcity

Water scarcity affects all continents as water use has been growing more than twice the rate of the population, according to UN-Water, an interagency that coordinates the efforts of the UN entities and international organizations working on sanitation and water issues.

It notes that more than 2 billion people lived in countries that experience high water stress in 2018. One in four children of the world below 18 are estimated to live in high water stress areas by 2040. Furthermore, water stress begins when the water that is available in the country drops below 1,700 m3 per year or 4,600 liters/day per person. Water stress can be caused by climate, water withdrawal, and population. Worldwide, 2.1 billion people are still living without safe drinking water in their homes.

As freshwater accumulates in mountain areas and comes from mountains, water towers are crucial to the welfare of the people globally. This puts emphasis on water conservation efforts focusing mountains and the need to address climate change for today’s and the future’s generations.

Water scarcity affects all continents as water use has been growing more than twice the rate of the population, according to UN-Water / Photo by: Dotun55 via Wikimedia Commons