The State of Water in a Changing Climate

Access to clean water is a fundamental human right, but climate change and an aging infrastructure jeopardize the quality and safety of our water in the US. Every year, as many as 900,000 people in the US fall ill, and 900 die, from waterborne diseases. Waterborne illnesses cause an estimated 40,000 hospitalizations annually at a cost of $970 million.

Climate Change Effects
Approximately 77 percent of fresh water consumed in the US is derived from surface waters. As the earth’s temperature rises, surface water temperatures in reservoirs, lakes and streams also rise. This creates a more hospitable environment for some harmful algae blooms and the growth of other waterborne pathogens.

Warmer waters also evaporate more quickly into the air, which sets the stage for heavier rainfall and flooding. Flood waters can contain a variety of harmful contaminants—like insecticides, fertilizers, microbes, etc.—and can overwhelm drainage or wastewater treatment systems. This increases the risk of exposure to bacteria, parasites and other harmful pollutants in the water we drink, as well as in the crops, fish and other food we eat.

The extreme weather events of climate change exacerbate the problems. They do not account for race, income, gender or age before striking. Yet, vulnerable populations—including tribal and low-income communities and those of color, the elderly, young children and those with chronic illnesses—bear the greatest burden of injury, disease and death related to climate change. Similarly, socioeconomically disadvantaged communities are not always able to recover quickly, or recover at all, in the wake of environmental disasters.

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