Opinion Extra

Lakshmi: Water is central to climate debate

In June, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly approved a climate bill proposed by its Democratic members. There were a very few votes of support from the Republicans. That is typical of what the climate debate in our country has become.

There is a way to end this polarization over such a very important issue. It is through water.

Most people associate increasing carbon dioxide and temperatures with images of polar bears stranded on floating ice. Society has failed to link global climate change to changes in the water cycle.

It is a common conclusion of numerous studies that one of the most important sources of water - the groundwater aquifers - will face decreases in recharge (or rate of replacement) as a result of climate change. In model simulations using various climate change scenarios, the amount of recharge of groundwater aquifers decreases by almost 90 percent.

Dependence on and overuse of this resource, which has been slowly accumulated over geological time, also contribute to the reduction in groundwater. Many countries (Denmark, Malta and Saudi Arabia) depend completely on groundwater. Others (Switzerland, Tunisia, Austria, Belgium and Hungary) get more than 70 percent of their water from groundwater. Also, many countries depend on groundwater as a source of irrigation water; 45 percent of U.S. irrigation demands are satisfied by groundwater.

In addition, we are experiencing more dry periods between intense rainfall periods. Coastal-area aquifers show a loss of freshwater and saline intrusion. There is an early onset of spring snow melt streamflow and an increase in streamflow temperatures. This corresponds to a decrease in summertime flow and increased evapotranspiration and increased likelihood of winter floods due to snow melt as a result of climate change.

This year the monsoons have failed in India, which means the Kharif or the autumn crops of rice, corn and lentils along with peanuts, cotton, soyabeans and sugarcane are at risk of low production. This would put pressure on the food supply in the Indian subcontinent of a billion people. The failure of the monsoons is part of the three- to five-year fluctuations of sea surface temperatures in the Tropical Pacific Ocean - the El Nino. We also witnessed intense rainfall in Europe in August; there has been intense flooding in the Philippines due to Tropical storm Ketsana, resulting in loss of lives and property. One of the biggest impacts of climate change would be intensification of El Nino, which would result in more storms and floods and severe droughts.

Loss of agricultural crops leads to famine. Famines help breed extremism; the recent famine in Somalia is linked with Islamic extremism. The reduction in yield of the autumn crop in India implies that India - one of the top five exporters of rice (among other grains) - will have little to offer to the market but instead will have to depend on imports to satisfy its own requirements. This will strain the global grain market, and many regions of the world - especially the perennially drought-prone regions of North Africa - will suffer from starvation. Starvation leads to active recruitment by the extremist groups who prey on the poor population.

Last month, leaders from 100 nations met at the United Nations in New York to discuss climate issues and to lay the groundwork for an important conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December. However, the negotiations for the climate treaty are mired in contentious debate; the United States is trying to hold India and China to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions whereas India and China want the United States to lead the way in curbing emissions. This has reached a virtual impasse at a global level, and it is time that the United States led the way and took charge of this important societal act.

It is time to revisit the climate bill and cast it in terms of water -something Republicans and Democrats alike can support. Global shortage of water will promote extremism, which is detrimental to the security of the United States. Scarcity of water as a result of global climate change cannot be a partisan issue, as it affects the safety of our country.

We all need water to ensure a strong and safe America.