On the banks of the Elbe River in the Czech Republic there is a new tourist attraction with a dire warning. Europe’s severe drought has exposed more than a dozen boulders, including one inscribed with the words, “Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine.” “If you see me, weep.”
Indeed, researchers in 2013 explained that this is one of the oldest hydrological landmarks in the world:
“It expressed that drought had brought a bad harvest, lack of food, high prices and hunger for poor people. Before 1900, the following droughts are commemorated on the stone: 1417, 1616, 1707, 1746, 1790, 1800, 1811, 1830, 1842, 1868, 1892, and 1893.”
Now has become something of a tourist attraction. Thanks to a dam on a tributary of the Elbe River, it is seen more often than it used to be. But make no mistake, the current river levels are extremely low, and the stone’s message resonates.
The other extreme is equally tragic. In Pakistan, due to devastating storms and continual rain, approximately one third of the country is under water. There is so much water with nowhere to go it has, according to CNN, created a new inland lake more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) wide.
UN officials describe the near constant rains over the past two months “a monsoon on steroids.” It has killed more than a thousand people with 33 million people impacted as the overflowing Indus River has inundated much of Sindh province in the South.
We have a global water crisis that is causing instability and suffering, across the globe as well as at home.
The Western United States is facing the worst drought in 1200 years. Water managers are scrambling to deal with allocation cuts from the Colorado River, and Lake Mead’s levels continue a 22-year downward trend to the lowest point since its creation pre-WWII. Across the U.S., we have seen five separate “once in a thousand year” rain events happen in just the past two months alone. In Jackson, Mississippi, aging infrastructure has left its residents without access to safe drinking water. These events aren’t just for the history books – their impacts are being felt every day.
As we look around the world, the costs are already falling on those who can least afford it. Environmental stress creates deadly feedback loops, that are driving additional risks and further deepening vulnerabilities in our communities. Overcoming these challenges in the face of climate change will be hard enough as it is. But when you add the additional lens of water insecurity and growing conflict, the crises magnify.
The United States understands the national security implications of both climate change and the loss of nature and is prioritizing these as top security risks. We also understand that water is a central link to both crises. That is why the Biden administration has made mitigating and adapting to climate change a top priority of our domestic and global work.
Over the past year and half, the U.S. has been leading efforts to strengthen our climate commitments and ambition. Mobilizing resources, working with our partners, and adapting to growing climate impacts are central to this job. Last year, President Biden launched the President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (PREPARE), with the goal of helping more than half a billion people adapt to and manage the impacts of climate change. Water is one of the key sectors where PREPARE is focusing its work, including in relation to growing climate security threats and the role nature can play in buffering floods and droughts.
We have also been working to raise the priority of water by launching the first White House Action Plan on Global Water Security, and strengthening the U.S. Global Water Strategy, which will be released in October.
I recently returned from World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, where I met 2021 Stockholm Water Prize winner Sandra Postel. She is optimistic about the future of water. She does not base this on pie-in-the-sky platitudes, but rather on what she has seen happen. She described how one segment of the Colorado River delta was reborn when dam water was released back to nature to feed the surrounding land. Tiny organisms returned, and then the fish returned, and then their predators returned, and so on. And it did not take long. While there is still a severe drought, even a tiny bit of water is helping previously deprived areas.
We know what we need to do, starting with conserving and restoring nature. And that is just what we are committed to doing at home and abroad.
About the Author: Monica P. Medina was confirmed as Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs on September 28, 2021.