State of the Planet

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Changing Perspectives: How Bottom-Up Studies Can Improve Water Security

A recent study published in Nature Sustainability explores the complexities of water security in interactions between glacier meltwater and the human system. Though concerns surrounding water security are not new, causes of water insecurity have shifted from conflict and industrialization to extreme weather events and climate change. Glacier meltwater is a primary water source for many mountain communities, and increasing temperatures and glacier melting threaten water security for downstream communities around the world.

Globally, many countries lack an adequate understanding of the cryosphere — the parts of the Earth that are covered in ice — largely due to insufficient glacier monitoring. For some glaciers, for example, ice-thickness measurements only occur every 10 years or so; as a result, seasonal changes are poorly recorded, and glacier mass fluctuations are often inaccurately represented in computer models.

Moreover, the lack of data collection means that scientists don’t fully understand what happens in the wider drainage basins surrounding glaciers — another factor that influences water security. These lapses in accurate and adequate data collection cause knowledge gaps on a global scale, and uncertainty is only compounded by ever-changing atmospheric patterns like the South Asian monsoon.

Glacier meltwater is an intricate part of the water cycle in mountain regions and nearby downslope areas, and its complexity makes it more difficult to understand the effects of shrinking glaciers on water security. Glaciers store frozen water, and the amount they store fluctuates based on global atmospheric conditions. Today, as a result of climate change, the amount of time that water is stored in glaciers is decreasing, which leads to shifts in how water circulates and gets stored in other parts of the water cycle, which in turn affects ecological activity in the area. Understanding the way these aspects of the water cycle affect water availability, combined with data regarding available glacier meltwater, will allow local communities to create plans to deal with increasing water insecurity.

Knowledge of the cryosphere becomes increasingly important as the effects of climate change continue to take hold. For several reasons, future water and energy balance affect climate, biodiversity, biomass, permafrost, sea level rise, and more. Proper data must be obtained to make accurate predictions. Moreover, climate change compounds human vulnerability to water insecurity, and lower/middle income regions — specifically the tropical Andes, the Himalayas, and Central Asia — are particularly vulnerable as population growth continues. As a result of climate change, 20 percent of the world’s river basins have experienced large increases or decreases in surface water, furthering unpredictability. In addition, data on socioeconomic factors in vulnerable areas are also limited. For instance, there is insufficient information regarding water demand and the adaptive capacity of particular communities.

river in foreground with waterfall from melting glacier in background
Meltwater from the Briksdal Glacier in Norway. Photo: DepositPhotos

In an interview with GlacierHub, Fabian Drenkhan — lead author on the recent study and a glaciologist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru — suggested four methods for improving data collection and minimizing the seemingly perpetual knowledge gaps in water security. First, he suggested using “crowdsource and citizen science approaches to add more local data but also to integrate local people into science-policy processes.” These methods include local people and knowledge, and create a “joint knowledge, bottom-up” approach. Drenkhan added that the “latter is particularly important in regions where there are missing links between those regions where scientists study phenomena and where local people live.”

Drenkhan also encouraged including local people throughout the entirety of the data collection process to rebuild confidence that was previously broken and remedy a deep-rooted distrust in science and technology in communities with negative past experiences working with researchers. Previously, scientific findings have only been communicated via a top-down approach, creating a rift between researchers and affected communities. Drenkhan suggested joint knowledge production that integrates local knowledge, Indigenous knowledge, and scientific knowledge. Additionally, he said that distributing knowledge (for example, policy briefs or community posters) in a common language and minimizing academic jargon is essential to maximizing understanding in the public sphere.

Rising global temperatures and extensive human land use lead to gaps and deficiencies in understanding global water insecurities. Focusing on changing data collection processes promotes better data collection, distribution, and understanding. Drenkhan concluded that “we need to move more strongly forward with integrated approaches that take into account all relevant components of the water cycle and additional or alternative data collection methods that allow us to build a better grasp of mountain water security.” Thus, implementing bottom-up data collection methods will not only improve existing data collection, but also begin to enable local communities to better adapt to issues surrounding water scarcity.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on January 29, 2023 at 1:45pm ET to correct the affiliation of Fabian Drenkhan and the journal title.

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