Tags: climate change, public health, water quality
By Elizabeth VanWormer, Water for Food Institute Faculty Fellow and an assistant professor of practice in the School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
When the warm summer rain falls in Nebraska, three kids in our neighborhood take to the street to construct dams and banks from stones, leaves and branches. Their barriers twist and turn the water as it courses to the storm drain at the base of our sidewalk. The water breaks over their little dam and rushes away with one of the smaller branches. But the children rebuild, testing and observing the impact of their strategies on the flow. From time to time, the water is clear, but it usually carries the ruddy brown of sediment or the oily sheen of driveways. It may also be moving unseen pesticides or nutrients from lawn fertilizers off the urban landscape. Always, it flows into the storm drains that are marked in faded letters, “leads to stream” — a reminder that water carries the results of our actions to the people, plants and animals living downstream.
Water availability and quality shape the health of people, plants, animals and ecosystems. The lack of water often leads to impacts that are easily observed — failing crops, dead pastures and drying wells. The food insecurity and malnutrition that commonly follow are often accompanied by severe economic losses.
Other health impacts are harder to see, such as an increased risk of violence or injury to young girls who walk farther and farther to collect water for their families’ needs. Water quality also plays a key role in health. In much of the world, clean drinking water is a luxury, and the water sources people and animals rely on to meet their daily needs come with a dose of agricultural nutrients, chemicals and contaminants, like lead or disease-causing organisms. Even the medicines commonly used to treat humans and animals have the potential to flow into waterways, impacting the people, animals and ecosystems downstream.
Climate change adds complexity to the links between water and health. Increased rain and heavy storms can cause certain diseases and disease-carrying vectors to emerge. More intense rainfall can also drive runoff of contaminated water from our cities, suburban areas, rural towns and agricultural landscapes. When the rain fails to fall and water sources shrink, there is often an increased risk of water-borne disease for the people, wildlife and domestic animals sharing drinking water. Longer dry periods or decreases in yearly rainfall can amplify the impacts of water scarcity that are already felt in diverse environments.
In our complex world, where the quantity and safety of our water is linked to climate change, human population growth, food production, and animal and landscape management, we need creative solutions to protect health. One Health is a holistic approach that brings together diverse disciplines and stakeholders to address health challenges at the interface of people, animals and ecosystems.
Drawing upon expertise from diverse research fields, government agencies, private organizations and communities builds our capacity to respond to water quality and quantity challenges in our changing climate. To mitigate the impacts of climate change on water and health, we need climate, water and health specialists within and beyond the university to work as a team. Moreover, our understanding of the broad impacts and local context of these issues is enriched by involving farmers, communities, natural resource managers, private groups, policymakers, economists and ecologists. Though it can be challenging to create these teams, building public-private partnerships through a One Health approach offers a promising road to safeguarding our water and health in a changing climate.
In some years and places, water feels abundant. A sky heavy with clouds sets the stage for my neighbors to engineer their own watershed — a chorus of laughter and footsteps chasing the flow down the street. For so many people and animals on our planet, the lack of clean water dominates their lives and landscapes. Water is vital to humans, animals and ecosystems. Our ability to build collaborative and creative partnerships may be our biggest asset in protecting the health of all.
Elizabeth VanWormer is a Water for Food Institute Faculty Fellow and an assistant professor of practice in the School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She will join the panel discussion on “Mitigating the Effects of Climate Change on Water and Food Security and Public Health” at the 2016 Water for Food Global Conference, April 24-26, in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.