Impact of Climate Change on Coastal Drinking Water Sources and Supply —Mitigation and Adaptation
Updated: Feb 23
Advanced Climate Change Science Report prepared by: Lilla Schottner, Ana Sanchez, and Teddi Ann Galligan
This paper examines the effect of climate change, with attendant sea level rise and disruptive weather events, on the availability, quality and delivery of drinking water in coastal regions. Population pressures are increasing the demand for drinking water in coastal areas as depletion of groundwater sources and sea level rise cause saltwater intrusion. Surface water sources are impaired due to accelerated evaporation and pollution. Impacts of reduced drinking water availability and lower water quality on human and ecosystem health are discussed, as are mitigation and adaptation methods.
keywords: climate change, drinking water, coastal, sea level rise, human health
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that climate change will increase the demand for water while simultaneously shrinking the freshwater supply. Water managers are thus challenged to meet the needs of growing communities, farmers, ranchers, energy producers, and manufacturers (EPA, 2017). Therefore, climate change can tip the climate out of balance and negatively affect the security of water, food, and energy systems.
A more comprehensive understanding of the current and future dynamics, geophysical, hydrological, even sociological, is necessary. That, along with knowledge of some techniques and technologies to manage drinking water demand, quality, and delivery, will help individuals, communities and larger authorities confront the reality of the impacts of climate change on drinking water.
Currently, approximately 40% of the world’s 8 billion inhabitants lives within 100 km of the ocean. In some coastal areas, runoff, flooding, saltwater intrusion, or sea level rise will be more problematic than water shortages. These effects reduce water quality and damage the infrastructure by which water is transported and delivered. In addition to the effects of temperature, precipitation, wind, and solar radiation alteration, human activities such as urban development for the growing population, plastic pollution and a lack of land use planning contribute to the degradation of the environment and water resources (Nazarnia et al., 2020).
The overall state of human health relies on clean water. Climate change has harmed human health globally, but most importantly, among citizens in countries where drinking water infrastructure was already lacking as surface water and groundwater resources have become increasingly prone to contaminants that cause illness.
The method of research was the assessment of peer-reviewed research papers ranging from decades to determine climate change and how it continues to affect water quality. The databases for peer-reviewed articles utilized for this review were: PubMed, Google Scholar, Web of Knowledge, Scopus, Research Gate, and ScienceDirect. The most relevant recent (2018-2022) research papers for the study were selected based on five inclusion criteria: impactful peer-reviewed research papers, factor-listed published research journals, the reports from scientific reports from world-known publishers, keywords used to screen the literature and English-only.
Causes of Climate Change
The broad consensus among scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (UN WMO) has been that the amplified greenhouse effect that has been observed since the industrial revolution is largely due to human activities, particularly the combustion of fossil fuels which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Isotopic analysis of the carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere reveals low concentrations of carbon-13 and no carbon-14 which is consistent with complete decay of carbon-14, its half-life being 5730 years, from the detritus of ancient organic matter that creates the fossil fuels. Per the UN WMO, on November 26, 2022, the highest concentration of CO2 ever recorded was 418 ppm at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. The build-up of atmospheric gasses, specifically nitrous oxide, N2O, methane, CH4, and carbon dioxide CO2, trap more of the infrared energy from the sun therefore causing a warming effect on the land mass, atmosphere, and oceans.
Effects of Climate Change
Increased air temperatures are linked to sea level rise (SLR). Sea level rise for the twenty-first century ranges from several centimeters to more than a meter, which, together with storm surges, increases flooding, exacerbates saltwater intrusion and salinization of coastal rivers, estuaries, and wetlands. Streamflow is a principal driver of changes in water quality, and changes in streamflow are highly correlated with changes in precipitation (Michael J. Paul et al., 2018). In a study by the same author, warming air temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and rising sea levels are expected to alter watershed hydrologic and biogeochemical processes, with direct and cascading effects on water quality. In addition to increased water levels and temperatures, coastal ecosystems will also face increased acidity (Nazarnia et al., 2020).
• Increased temperatures in high mountain areas—glacier melts and permafrost change Permafrost in high mountain areas is expected to undergo increasing thaw and degradation during the 21st century, and it will impact people via runoff and water quality. Other findings indicated a decrease in permafrost thickness and ice loss on the ground (IPCC, 2021). In most regions over the past decades, glacier retreat and permafrost thaws decrease the stability of mountain slopes and increase the number of glacier lakes. These changes in snow and glaciers have also changed the amount and seasonal runoff in snow-dominated and glacier- fed river basins, with local impacts on water resources and agriculture.
• Sea level rise
Climate change has already increased the average global surface temperature by 1.1oC compared to the average global surface temperature from 1850-1900 and is higher than any observed level since the most recent ice age (Tollefson, 2021). The increase in surface temperature induces thermal expansion of the water volume for any waters above 4oC. This expansion, with permafrost and glacier contributions, plus increased runoff from urbanization amplify each other to cause meaningful and detrimental sea level rise.
In this way, climate change is dramatically changing the hydrological cycle and the atmospheric and oceanic circulation, creating more robust and longer-lasting tropical cyclones with heavy rainfalls and storm surges. Storm surges—movement of seawater landwards due to low pressure and wind associated with storms—increase flooding, exacerbate saltwater intrusion—a saline water movement into freshwater aquifers—and salinization of coastal rivers, estuaries, and wetlands. Increased rainfall and sea level rise increase frequency and duration of floods and affect water supply and wastewater treatment.
• Eutrophication and cytotoxins
Climate change exacerbates eutrophication by increasing run-off and creating conditions that support nutrient loading. Algae blooms, similar to what is pictured in Figure 1, will also increase because of the acidification of water bodies subsequent to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Fig. 1. Seaweed blooms in the Algarve, south of Portugal. Photo credit: Lilla Schottner
With warming temperatures, more energy is available in the atmosphere to invigorate storm systems. Projected more frequent or extreme precipitation events are, therefore, more likely to occur and cause more erosion, agricultural runoff, and resuspension of sediments, ultimately resulting in higher concentrations of sediments and nutrients. These extreme events will increase contaminant discharge and affect non-point pollution by mobilizing them over land and increasing nutrient concentrations in receiving water bodies, consequently degrading water quality.
• High-energy winds and storms
As the air temperature rises, wind mixes the warmer upper layers of water with the colder lower layers, speeding up the volatilization, migration, and transformation of pollutants in addition to more destructive storm patterns.
Water Availability and Reliability
Sea level rise and higher energy storms, producing more significant storm surges, and accompanied by land subsidence, will bring about more coastal flooding over the next decades. The Pacific Islands, including Hawaii, as well as the East and Gulf Coasts of the United States are especially at risk (Bell et al, 2016). Erosion of coastlines due to increased storm activity increases the risk of unacceptable salinity of coastal water supply, that being above 200 mg/L Na+ or 250 mg/L Cl-. Increased osmotic pressure associated with sea level rise means salty water will intrude farther upstream in surface waters and farther inland in aquifers. Concurrent depletion of coastal aquifers exacerbates the extent of the saltwater intrusion.
Even inland, heavier downpours have the double impact of overwhelming sewer systems and increasing runoff into lakes and rivers, carrying debris, sediment, pollutants including animal waste into water intake zones for local water supply (United States Climate Change Science Program, 2008).
Indirect impacts of climate change on drinking water sources also occur. A severe storm can knock out the power supply, impairing the capacity of water utilities to treat intake water for the local potable water supply. After the derecho of June 2012, for instance, there was a sustained outage of power to Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission filtration plant, severely restricting water supply to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC for days (Brown et al, 2012).
The population increase in coastal areas of the United States has been 39% since 1970, as opposed to a 13% increase in population over the same time period in the country as a whole. This, and the effects of climate change itself—higher air temperatures, increased evaporation of surface waters, increased energy demand—intensify the pressures on coastal drinking water supplies. New infrastructure is required to accommodate newcomers, all of whom expect convenient access to high quality drinking water. Compounding the pressure is that existing old infrastructure, increasingly at risk of damage due to heavier or overwhelming storms, must be maintained, repaired, or replaced. Damage or even planned and necessary maintenance of existing infrastructure disrupts drinking water supply.
Coastal public drinking water supply is generally from either surface or groundwater freshwater sources, or saline water that is then desalinated. Private domestic drinking water is often supplied by private groundwater wells. At either level, public or private, coastal drinking water demands are high and ever increasing due to high population, drops in groundwater tables because of excess withdrawal, increased stormwater runoff because of increasing development, and saltwater intrusion as the water tables drop and seawater rises.
In addition to more extreme storms and weather patterns, diminished and unreliable snowpack and snow melt add to the interannual variability and compel water authorities to plan for extremes both of drought and overabundance.
Competition for freshwater from other sectors of society exists. Of freshwater consumption in the United States, for instance, drinking water constitutes 13% of that; the balance being consumed by irrigation (40%), thermoelectric energy generation (39%), and industrial use (5%) (Lecture Notes, ENSC 509, Professor Tamim Younos, 2022).
Infrastructure and energy needs for water, particularly to generate potable water from saltwater or reclaimed wastewater, is expected to increase in the coming decades (Younos et al., 2022).
Adequate, appropriate, and reliable quantity of water is important in water supply, but the water must be consistently high quality, as well. Different uses of water—recreational, agricultural irrigation, landscaping, cleaning, drinking, cooking—require different standards of water quality. Drinking water must meet the most rigorous standards, for which the United States Environmental Protection Agency sets legal limits for ninety different contaminants in drinking water (Environmental Protection Agency, 2022).
There are a host of safeguards implemented by environmental, public health, and water resource agencies to protect drinking water supplies in most of the United States served by public water infrastructure. Notably, however, about 15% of the United States population is served by private wells, which are not regulated by the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act or local or state bodies (USGS Water Resources, 2019). In the case of private wells, it is up to the homeowner to monitor and manage water quality.
The principle water quality issues in freshwater are eutrophication, salinity (coastal or due to mining activities), acidification (due to atmospheric deposition or mining), trace elements (due to industrial wastewater, mining or urban runoff), nutrient load (nitrogen, phosphorus from agricultural sites), organic micropollutants (from pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls etc), sedimentation/siltation, dissolved oxygen, algae and nutrient stratification (Lecture notes, WTRM 500, Professor Tolessa Deksissa, 2021).
Rapid development along the coasts, the ensuing increased withdrawal from freshwater aquifers, compounded by sea level rise and more intense storms, means that coastal freshwater aquifers will experience increased salinity (United States Climate Change Science Program, 2009). Coastal aquifers are particularly at risk for increased salinity due to the tandem effect of groundwater depletion and sea levels rise. Similarly, tidal waters will experience increased salinity further upstream.
Inundation of lowland coasts and deltas affects agriculture, groundwater, and infrastructure such as wastewater systems. Saltwater flow from the sea into a wastewater system could damage infrastructure, increase flow and bypass the wastewater system. Sea level rise increases relative hydrostatic saltwater pressure and the resulting saltwater intrusion into freshwater and groundwater resources harms the health of salt-intolerant vegetation and deteriorates ecosystems along the coastal belts, as seen in Figure 2. Furthermore, rainfall amounts due to climate change alter the hydraulic gradients between land and sea, resulting in more saltwater intrusion, which would be one of the inevitable stressors to be considered in climate change and hydraulic modelling (Nazarnia et al., 2020).
Fig. 2. the salinity of fresh groundwater Source: A Systematic Review of Civil and Environmental Infrastructures for Coastal Adaptation to Sea Level Rise, (Nazarnia et al., 2020)
• Other contaminants
Increased runoff from agricultural areas carries nitrogen- and phosphorus-containing nutrients into waterways. That nutrient boost, along with stormwater, sewage, and animal waste runoff that enters waterways, promotes algal blooms and concentration of other organic matter in water. Increased algae and other organic matter then foster the overgrowth of microbiological contaminants such as Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Vibrio alginolyticus, and Vibrio vulnificus, three infectious strains of the eighty naturally occurring strains of Vibrio bacteria (Reynolds, 2019).
Another consideration of emerging importance is microplastic pollution. Microplastics are made from many different molecules, such as polypropylene, polyethylene, and polyvinyl chloride-polyamide, that come from many sources. They differ in size and color, as seen in Figure 3, and contain additives such as phthalates and organic contaminants. Organic contaminants are chemical compounds such as microplastic pesticides used in agriculture and are also present in stormwater runoffs. They are discharged from industries and can reach marine water through migration by water currents. They harm the marine environment, and these contaminants are ingested by organisms and then introduced into the food web (Kumar et al., 2021). Microplastics from throughout the watershed drain into drinking water sources and provide surfaces for microbial growth (Galgani et al, 2019). Removal of microplastics from source waters necessitates more advanced treatment such as microfiltration and ultrafiltration membrane technologies.
Fig. 3. Plastic pollution in the Atlantic Ocean, Portugal. Sources: Case studies of macro- and microplastics pollution in coastal waters and rivers Barcelo et al., (2020). photo credit: Lilla Schottner.
Health Effects of Poor Drinking Water Quality
Climate change is a universal threat that impacts all communities. As climate change continues to increase temperatures causing extreme weather patterns, including heavy precipitation, flooding, heat waves, and severe drought, water quality and quantity are affected, negatively impacting human health.
• Populations at Increased Risk
Some populations are particularly vulnerable to climate change health effects. According to the EPA, vulnerability is measured across three factors: sensitivity, exposure, and adaptive capacity. Sensitivity refers to the magnitude of how a group is affected by a particular stressor like drought. Exposure is the degree of contact between an individual and the stressor. Adaptive capacity is the ability to evade or adapt to a source of stress or risk. (“Climate Impacts on Human Health”, 2017).
Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), low income, and immigrants are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change health effects due to intersectional factors such as socio-economic and educational status. Different factors impact adaptive capabilities and exposure risks while higher preponderance of health conditions increase sensitivities. Children, pregnant women, older adults, disabled individuals, and certain occupational groups are also populations of concern (“Climate Change and Health Factsheets”, 2017).
• Drinking Water Related Health Impacts
Contaminated drinking water is a major health concern. Health risks related to poor drinking water include dehydration, hunger, liver and kidney disease, mental health problems due to water stress, and the spreading of diseases and infections. Table 1 lists common contaminants and the corresponding effect on human health. The EPA explains that climate change impacts: - increased exposure to waterborne pathogens such as cholera and giardia, cyanobacterial and algal bloom toxins in water, and human-related chemical contaminants released into the water. - shifting water temperatures allowing waterborne bacteria and bloom toxins to exist and thrive at unprecedented times and locations. -increasing precipitation causing flooding and runoff contamination into drinking water sources, fishing waters, and recreational waters. - extreme weather events, hurricanes, and storms, that stress or damage existing drinking and wastewater infrastructure, which also increases human exposure to contaminants.
In the U.S., water quality monitoring strategies, drinking water standards, and community advisories are some safeguards in place to reduce the possibility of adverse health impacts (“Climate Impacts on Human Health”, 2017).
Table 1: The potential health impacts of contaminants in drinking water.
Mitigation and Adaptation
Widespread adaptation to ongoing and anticipated impacts on drinking water supplies is necessary. Some adaptation, such as many conservation practices, depends on individual behavior. Some adaptation methods are community-wide, and some rest with large utilities who serve millions, or even larger scope policy adaptations.
Nazarnia et al., (2020) studied adaptation alternatives and categorized them into three groups: community education and involvement in planning initiatives, technical options such as designed seawalls, preservation of natural barriers, and policies for land use and environmental conservation.
Green adaptation can introduce natural barriers such as mangroves, wetlands, and coral reefs.
Grey adaptation: dikes, pumps, levees, storm surge barriers, elevated bridges and roads, and seawalls.
Pink adaptation: such as education, policies, and social involvement.
Adaptation includes taking into consideration both immediate needs and present climactic condition as well as climate forecast by models and the potential implications for drinking water supplies. A holistic approach, challenging and changing design assumptions that work under present conditions but may not be relevant facing future conditions, must take place at the local, state, and federal levels. Before plans are made, an assessment must begin with an overview of the watershed and the larger watershed in which the local watershed plays a role, conditions of both drought and flood, socio-economic analysis, and appropriate decision- making tools.
Some adaptation methods currently being implemented include: water conservation at the consumer and utility infrastructure, facility levels, desalination, membrane technology (reverse osmosis and others), wastewater reuse, rainwater harvesting. Each of these has a role to play in solving the impending drinking water crisis.
The call to protect drinking water sources and human health requires adaptation and mitigation strategies. Climate change mitigation strategies seek to reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) levels and their future incrementation (“Mitigation”, n.d.). Human activities are closely related to the increased concentration of GHGs and the ability to reduce released emissions significantly. The U.S. was ranked first in 2020 per capita GHG emissions, 14 tons of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e) (global average 6.3 tCO2e) and ranked second among the top seven global emitters (“Emissions Gap Report 2022”, 2022).
Fig. 4. Graph table of total and per capita 2020 GHG emissions from the top 8 emitters. Adapted from Emissions Gap Report 2022, 2022. Retrieved from https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/40932/EGR2022_ESEN.pdf?sequenc e=8
• US electric power sector
25% of total US GHG emissions are attributed to electricity production and emissions are expected to increase as electric and plug-in vehicle demand increases (“Source of Greenhouse Gas Emissions”, 2022). According to the Biden-Harris Electric Vehicle Charging Action Plan, the U.S. aims for 50% of new vehicle sales to be zero-emission vehicles by 2030 (House, 2021). President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure law in 2021, allocating $7.5 billion in new funding for electric vehicle (EV) charging stations which would support EV accessibility (“Electric Vehicles & Rural Transportation”, n.d.).
It is essential to understand the scale of the electric power sector and, therefore, the role of mitigation in the electric power sector because large scale water treatment, management, and consumption relies on electric power. Promoting water conservation through public campaigns can be an effective mitigation strategy by reducing electric and water quantity demands. Yet, other substantial GHG reducing mitigation opportunities include turning to improved water infrastructure efficiency, renewable energy sources, and decentralized water systems.
• Water Infrastructure Efficiency
Improving water infrastructure efficiency can conserve energy and water sources. Water main breaks and leaks are significant sources of energy and water waste, exhibited by the 240,000 U.S. water main break yearly average. This can be measured in energy waste if one examines U.S. non-revenue water (est. 2.65 x 107 m3) which includes non-billed water usage and losses (leaks and breaks) by considering the average energy of U.S. water supply resulting in a nearly 7 million kWh of energy waste. Future water main breaks and leaks can be avoided by installing new pipes which improve water pump efficiency and energy use (Younos et al., 2022).
• Renewable energy sources
Renewable energy sources in the form of solar and wind energy instead of traditional fossil fuels serve as alternative and GHG friendly power sources for energy demanding water treatment centers.
• Decentralized water systems
Decentralized water systems rely on small, local water supply systems which reduces the need to pump water from centralized public water systems inherently lessening energy use. Lower pumping needs also mean less risk of water main breaks and leaks.
Rainwater harvesting is an example of a decentralized water system that reduces public water system demands and runoff. Rainwater harvesting is recommended for non-potable uses like irrigation. Although rainwater harvesting is not the best option for drought or semi-arid prone locations, it is for areas experiencing increased precipitation due to climate change (Younos et al., 2022)
Geography, topography and demography demand different approaches. On shallow islands, for instance, an increase of sea level of a few centimeters can have a significant negative effect on the capacity of the lens of a shallow freshwater aquifer, often the only potable water source. The difference in density between freshwater (1.00 g/mL) and saltwater (1.027 g/mL) means that a 1 cm increase in sea level translates to a 40 cm loss of depth of freshwater lens. In these areas, desalination is a key tool to provide drinking water. If the islands of concern are barrier islands, sound side water tends to have lower salinity than the water that flows through the inlets or the ocean itself. Sounds with lower salinity, due to their hydrological relationship to river deposits and distance from saltier inlets, are preferred for desalination plants. Along the barrier islands of North Carolina, for instance, the waters of the Albemarle- Pamlico Sounds have lower salinity in the 0-20 ppt range, in contrast to typical ocean salinity of 35 ppt, so desalination plants are being planned for and located in the sounds (United States Climate Change Science Program, 2009).
When dealing with larger water utilities for metropolitan areas, adaptation must be multifaceted. Philadelphia, for instance, is a city 89 kilometers inland from the Atlantic Ocean with no ocean coast. The Philadelphia Water Department serves over 2 million people with drinking water it draws from the tidal Delaware River. Climate change impacts such as increased air temperatures, sea level rise, saline water reaching far enough upstream to the intake on the tidal Delaware River, increased precipitation and extreme storms causing flooding and combined sewer overflows, affecting quality of source waters and threatening infrastructure and facilities, as well as increased frequency of droughts, affecting source water quality and availability, are anticipated. In response, the Philadelphia Water Department has launched their forward thinking report Climate Resilient Planning and Design Guidance (City of Philadelphia, 2022). This tool outlines plans for climate change impacts including storm surges, infrastructure overwhelm and damage, increased salinity and the need for desalination, green water infrastructure technologies, and anticipated sea level rise anywhere between 0.603 meters (1.98 feet) and 1.95 meters (6.4 feet) by the year 2100. It also takes into consideration the effect of extreme cold on drinking water intake infrastructure, higher air temperature requiring recalculated chemical application rates (e.g. increased chlorine needed as it degrades faster at higher temperatures), changes in water quality with increased algal blooms due to increased stream temperature, diminished dissolved oxygen due to increased temperature, increased evaporation and low flow conditions, and green stormwater infrastructure plants for green stormwater infrastructure chosen for their ability to adapt to the forecast conditions.
As an example of community-level adaptation, in southwestern Bangladesh, there is a safe water scarcity crisis which locals attribute to climate change. Some methods of adaptation are already being implemented such as pond sand filters to manage increased salinity, boiling collected pond water before use, and rainwater harvesting (Abedin et al, 2018).
With each adaptation, certain issues arise around the availability and choice of appropriate technology, energy source and rate of consumption—does the technology rely on renewable energy, what energy conservation mechanisms exist for the water technologies planned, is the energy recoverable in another form, might there be opportunities for co-generation of energy as water is treated? Of course, economic impacts and cost efficacy must be analyzed and evaluated with cost and viability of compliance for permitting and other regulations.
Environmental considerations include placement of water intake and water treatment plants, as well as the disposition of the concentrate residual from the water treatment plant. Desalination technologies in the United States of America typically operate using reverse osmosis. Other desalination technologies include electrodialysis, ion transfer, and thermal technologies. Any of these methods presents environmental, technological, and economic challenges in dealing with the brine residue which contains not only salt, but other chemical by-products. Reverse osmosis is the most common method of desalination and yields a concentrate that is approximately 42% water when performed on seawater. Thermal technologies, commonly used in the Middle East not only discharge fluid hotter than the surrounding water, but also can have as low as 22% water in the effluent. An analysis found that the ratio of brine water generated per liter of freshwater produced is about 1.5:1. This heavily saline water, if discharged into the sea from which it came, sinks to the bottom of the sea floor where it disrupts, even kills, marine life by decreasing the dissolved oxygen near the sea floor (Gies, 2019).
Climate change has overarching effects on coastal drinking water availability and reliability, water quality, and human health impacts. As coastal populations increase and temperatures rise, the chances of acquiring clean water are diminished.
As temperatures rise and more energy is available for storm systems to develop and intensify, increased pollution due to run off and increased stress on drinking water supplies, and more destruction from extreme weather are to be expected.
Major impact of sea level rise on coastal drinking water is the increase in salinity for the ground and surface water sources due to saltwater intrusion. Mitigation possibilities include injection wells to recharge groundwater and balance pressure.
Increased runoff from storms and urbanization drive the pollution of drinking water sources through direct contamination of chemicals, microbiological elements, and microplastics. Also, the indirect effects of runoff via nutrient loading lead to algal blooms that suppress aquatic life and ecosystems.
A systemic approach is mandatory. A combination of low impact development with consideration for watershed management and groundwater management zones—specifying permits for withdrawal and managed recharge could balance the increasing coastal population and the disproportionately increasing demands for freshwater and drinking water as people must contend with the heat and its effects with proper stewardship of the water and environmental resources.
There are hyper-local technologies poised to be part of the solution such as point-of-use technologies selected and managed with respect to immediate, local challenges to safe, reliable drinking water supply. Appropriate grey water use would further alleviate the demand pressure on potable water in coastal areas. Both these steps can be achieved economically and sustainably with community level education and workshops to help stakeholders monitor and manage their water supply.
On a larger scale, colocation of energy plants with desalination and other energy-intense water purification plants would certainly be a wise design for sustainable water and energy use as we face the challenges brought about by climate change.
From this research, it is clear that there is a relationship between climate change and stress on coastal drinking water sources. The unprecedented increasing temperatures of the atmosphere due to greenhouse gas emissions is resulting in melting glaciers, permafrost thawing and expansion of water volume, consequently causing rising levels of oceans and seas. Sea level rise threatens coastal regions by submergence of infrastructures and intrusion of saltwater into freshwater and groundwater. The warming global air temperatures are also affecting sea temperatures; a warmer sea extends and melts ice sheets all around the world.
To meet the increasing demands for coastal drinking water, a multi-faceted approach is needed. Governments must invest in infrastructure, mitigation, and adaptation actions, and enact policies for responsible land use and development.
The sustainability of any water supply goes hand-in-hand with the sustainability of the energy supply used to treat that water. The energy component is an even more acute consideration as we necessarily turn to less traditional water sources, such as salt water and wastewater. Salt water and wastewater (for that matter, microplastic-containing water sources) demand greater energy for the high-level treatment required to provide potable water.
Of course, to be sustainable, any adaptation method must balance the interplay among water, energy, and food. It is not sheerly the technology, but the environmental, societal structure and culture, and economic picture that must be taken together to find a solution to provide adequate, safe, reliable, drinking water for each community.
The coastal resource of wind energy and the coastal need of potable water is an important pairing. A renewable energy source for an energy-intensive water treatment process would minimize the additional energy needed for distribution of either the energy source or the desalinated water.
One area that would benefit from additional research and consideration is micro- and nano- plastic contamination of water sources. Emerging evidence of damage to human and ecosystem health from microplastic contamination makes this an urgent area to investigate.
This report was reviewed by Annabelle Arnold, Jacob Campbell, and Jason Sierra, whose comments and edits were very much appreciated.
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