Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Face of Water Stress

One of the expected outcomes of a changing climate in many parts of the world is increased water stress. Semi-arid environments where water is a precious commodity and drought is a periodic visitor will likely be the hardest hit. Warming temperatures and changing precipitation patterns will make droughts more frequent and more severe. We have seen this even in the United States with our own recent work. All of this is really abstract though, what does this actually mean? Recent events in Kenya might be a good place to start to see what some of these effects might look like.

A cholera epidemic is sweeping through the country, hitting northern Kenya particularly hard. Nearly 5,000 people have been beset in the last month alone with at least 119 deaths confirmed. This is in all likelihood a gross underestimate given the poor communication in the area. Many of the cases have been identified from people strong enough to make it to more populated areas with medical facilities. It is unknown how many cases or deaths have occurred in more remote areas of the country.

Cholera is a particularly disgusting and highly infectious disease. It is a bacterial infection of the intestine that results in uncontrollable diarrhea. Its onset is fast and debilitating, within a few hours of contracting the disease victims are often too weak to travel or move. Death often comes from acute dehydration. Once the bacteria has established itself in an area it is spread very easily and rapidly. As always, kids and the elderly are the first to go.

So what does this have to do with climate? Kenya is currently experiencing a drought which has made water more scarce than usual. Especially in rural areas, water is often reused and many people are forced to use dirty water in order to survive. As farming animals die from thirst, fly populations explode which spread the bacteria at a faster rate. Often the best way to prevent cholera is to wash hands and eating utensils frequently. When water is this scarce however, it is not possible for people to wash their hands or their eating utensils with fresh water if at all. As human populations continue to grow and droughts become more frequent and severe in semi-arid parts of the world, diseases like cholera are likely to make their presence felt. Someone here made the comment during a session that "water is the new gold". The rich will be fine, the poor will be victims.

1 comment:

  1. I find your argument interesting but a bit lacking in the fact there are ways to combat the bacteria. The apparent symptom of the disease is a result of Cholera toxin from the bacteria. My question is there an alternative way of debilitating the bacteria by boiling the dirty water to provide some line of defense.


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