Abigail Cook
Climate Change, Complexity, and Society: Research Report
Fall 2012
The Human Social System and WATER
Throughout human history, populations all over the world have continuously
interacted with earth’s natural systems. These interactions are complex and
increasing. Humans use of land, oceans, and fresh-water, have dramatically
changed land cover, biogeochemical and hydrological cycles, and even the
climate system. In fact, human influence is now so pervasive that it also dramatically
alters the evolutionary trajectories of many species. Our relationship with available
and fresh water specifically, is being stressed past the point of return.
Although humans have interacted with the environment since the beginning of
human history, the scope and intensity of these interactions have increased
dramatically since the industrial revolution. Humans depend on ecosystem services
to survive, one of these being potable water. Human’s reliance on natural systems –
including those which provide us with fresh and accessible water - are increasingly at
risk for a few main reasons; global population and per capita use of resources are
increasing, and many ecosystems that provide services critical to human well being
are degraded. All over the globe, people and nature interact reciprocally across
diverse organized levels, forming complex webs of interactions that are imbedded
within each other.
Humans depend on nature for water, but natural hydrological cycles and
water supply are being threatened due to human action and inaction. Currently,
more than half of all accessible freshwater worldwide is being used by humans
making it extremely scarce. Growing demands for fresh water also dramatically
affect species conservation. Globally, at least one-fifth of fresh-water fish species are
currently threatened or extinct, and aquatic species currently make up almost half of
all animals listed as federally endangered in the United States (Jackson, Carpenter
and Dahm). Unfortunately, for many ecosystems, restoration is at the very least more
costly than preventing the loss of ecosystem services in the first place.
On the other side of the reciprocal relationship between the human social
system and water, natural process can devastate human systems through
environmental degradation and disasters, such as floods or droughts. At the global
level, environmental deterioration now forces more people to cross national borders
than wars. Environmental refugees may reach 50 million within the next five years
(Jianguo Liu). The impacts of these disasters can range from interruption of work
routines, all the way to social conflicts, economic losses, and the spread of disease
and death. In the end, accelerating human impacts on natural systems may lead to
degradation and collapse of these systems – which in turn compromises the adaptive
capacity of humans.
Currently, our relationship with the global water system is increasing its
vulnerability at an exponential and possibly irreversible rate. In my research, I have
found that the primary reasons for vulnerability of global water can be classified into
three main sources: vulnerability resulting from human components, from natural
components, and vulnerability as a result of the interplays between human and
natural systems. The first, (human components) include factors such as pollution and
contamination of water supply. The second, (natural components) include
temporary rise of water level due to a flood or adversely, a lack of water due to a
drought. And finally the third, (the interplays between these human and natural
systems) encompass complex relationships. For instance, how our tendency to over
fish costal waters, accompanied by pollution and habitat destruction, has simplified
ecosystems and caused them to react to external influences in an unpredictable
manner; primarily because the buffering mechanisms and resilience in the previous
systems have been degraded. We – the human race - are simplifying and
homogenizing landscapes and seascapes everywhere making them vulnerable to
All over the world there are local factors as well as global factors that
contribute to the vulnerability of water; the primary one however being the uneven
distribution of fresh and accessible water. Until recently there has been little debate
about sharing water between society and nature. This is not surprising since there is so
much water on the planet; roughly two thirds of the earth’s surface is covered with
oceans. However, less than 1% of this water is fresh and accessible, the rest being
either saline, frozen, or in deep underground aquifers (J. S. Wallace). Usually, the
water that is valuable to humans is abundant in developed nations, including the
United States, allowing issues such as water quality, environmental impacts, and
ecosystem protection to dominate and get addressed in those regions.
Consequently however, this leaves an extremely short supply of water for developing
nations. Currently, the most severe water shortages are in northern Africa, where the
per capita annual renewable freshwater resource is insufficient to meet human
needs (J. S. Wallace).
Couplings between human and natural systems across locations can also be
seen in the comparison of rural and urban areas. Approximately half of the current
global population lives in urban areas. As it turns out, cities consume 60% of the water
tapped for use by people (Jianguo Liu). Comparably, as the world population rises,
human’s uses of freshwater resources are increasing. We are exploiting fresh water,
leaving less available to support aquatic and associated ecosystems. Already, some
degree of water scarcity exists throughout Africa and the Middle East and it is
estimated that by 2050 a staggering 67% of the world's population (6.5 billion people)
may experience some water scarcity. Furthermore, by 2050 as many as one in six
people (1.5 billion) may have insufficient water to meet their requirements for
growing food and domestic water (J. S. Wallace).
Already, the state of public water infrastructure is inadequate to meet our
needs. Less water is drinkable. Wells provide about 43.5 million people with drinking
water, representing 15% of the total U.S. population (Barbara L. Rowe). However, we
are draining the wells and decreasing the quality of the fresh water accessible to us.
Because we have long had the luxury of seemingly unlimited water, more often than
not, that attitude has led us to unnecessary waste and pollution of our water.
Throughout the world, water usage in irrigated agriculture, by far accounts for
the greatest amount (between 65% and 75%) of total water use (J. S. Wallace).
Regrettably, we waste an astronomical amount of water just in the production of our
food, through inefficient harvesting, transportation, distribution, processing, and
storage methods. While this may not seem to be a prevailing problem right now,
improving the efficiency of water use will be important in the very near future in order
to balance supply and demand for fresh water and protect aquatic eco-systems.
Technologies such as drip irrigation have great potential to reduce water
consumption in agriculture (Jackson, Carpenter and Dahm). As Sandra Postel (the
leader of the National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative) put it, “As the world
population climbs and water stress spreads around the globe, finding ways of getting
more crop per drop to meet our food needs is among the most urgent of
Among utilities, one of the primary reasons for wasted water is leakage. In fact,
it has been estimated that drinking water systems loose 6% - 25% of their finished
water through leaks and breaks (Levin, Epstein and Ford). Leaks are also a health risk,
a source of contamination in systems that occasionally have negative pressure.
Ultimately, the wasting of fresh water through domestic, industrial, and agricultural
uses will dominate future water scarcity. It is critical that greater efficiency is
encouraged, ideally through economic incentives and a more realistic valuation of
water and freshwater ecosystem services.
In the 21st century we have seen an increasing amount of evidence of global
climate change and in many cases, global warming. Some data predicts that the
rate at which warming is occurring is also increasing. If these trends are accurate and
they continue, the resulting global warming will adversely affect water distribution,
availability, and quality. Ultimately, studies have shown that changes in hydrological
cycles have the power to shift the intensity, seasonality, and special distribution of
precipitation throughout the world. These changes with only further distress already
disrupted ecosystems.
Global warming will affect both surface water and ground water in a variety of
ways. As discussed in class, a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor resulting in
higher evaporation rates. Warming of the ocean will cause sea level rise form the
melting of glaciers and ice sheets, as well as thermal expansion (Levin, Epstein and
Ford). Theoretically, higher global temperatures will also result in increased water
consumption (drinking water, irrigation, etc.) increasing the demands on water
systems even more. Overall, the impacts on climate change on our relationship with
water will present themselves in a vast array of consequences, both directly and
Despite the abundance of water on earth, it is becoming clear that the
relatively small portion that is fresh and accessible is under extreme pressure as the
population rises and human requirements for water increase. Although we are
beginning to gain a better understanding of the necessity of water for species and
communities and about the critical levels of water supply needed to maintain
ecosystem health, in many parts of the world aquatic ecosystems have been
extremely damaged and it is not possible to return them to a natural state. As
societies and ecosystems become increasingly dependant on static or shrinking
water supplies, there is an increasing risk of severe failures in social or ecological
systems. To minimize future human water shortages and undesirable environmental
impacts, more equitable sharing of water resources between society and nature is
Works Cited
Barbara L. Rowe, Patricia L. Toccalino, Michael J. Moran, John S. Zogorski and Curtis
V. Price. “Occurrence and Potential Human-Health Relevance of Volatile
Organic Compounds in Drinking Water from Domestic Wells in the United
States.” Environmental Health Perspectives 115.11 (2007): 1539-1546.
J. S. Wallace, M. C. Acreman and C. A. Sullivan. “The Sharing of Water between
Society and Ecosystems: From Conflict to Catchment-Based CoManagement.” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 358.1440 (2003):
Jackson, Robert B., et al. "Water in a Changing World." Ecological Applications 11
(2001): 1027-1045.
Jianguo Liu, Thomas Dietz, Stephen R. Carpenter, Carl Folke, Marina Alberti, Charles L.
Redman, Stephen H. Schneider, Elinor Ostrom, Alice N. Pell, Jane Lubchenco,
William W. Taylor, Zhiyun Ouyang, Peter Deadman, Timothy Kratz and William
Provencher. “Coupled Human and Natural Systems.” Ambio 36.No. 8 (2007):
Levin, Ronnie B., et al. "U.S. Drinking Water Challenges in the Twenty-First Century."
Environmental Health Perspectives 110 (2002): 43-52.
Loáiciga, Hugo A. “Climate Change and Ground Water.” Annals of the Association
of American Geographers 93.1 (2003): 30-41.