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Cyclone Idai revealed the human face of climate change

Image credit: NASA

Cyclone Idai revealed the human face of climate change

Cyclone Idai, the tropical storm which last week rampaged across the south of Africa, may be the worst weather-related disaster to have ever hit the southern hemisphere, according to UN officials.

An estimated 1.7 million people were in the path of the cyclone in Mozambique, in addition to the 920,000 people affected in Malawi, and thousands more in Zimbabwe.

Storm surges caused floods up to six metres deep, while Mozambique’s Pungue and Buzi rivers overflowed, creating inland oceans extending for miles in every direction. Winds reached speeds of up to 177km per hour.

One aid worker told the BBC that every building in Beira – a city of half a million people, roughly the size of Edinburgh – had been damaged. There’s no power, no telecommunications, buildings have collapsed, and the streets are littered with fallen electricity lines.

And while aid agencies focused on the immediate needs of people trapped on rooftops and in buildings, the long-term effects could be even more devastating. An ocean, formed overnight, where once there were fields, homes, entire cities. One day people were going about their lives, the next, there was nothing but water.

Take a look at the people clinging to telephone poles or sitting, huddled, on rooftops, or fleeing with the meagre possessions they can fit on their backs, and you will see the human face of climate change.

Yet as the unpainted horror of the cyclone blared out from UK TV screens, at least for a short while, another seemingly unrelated story emerged closer to home, with the news that England is set to run short of water within 25 years.

Water demand will grow as England’s population increases, while supplies will fall because of climate change. When those two lines cross, there will not be enough water to go around.

Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, told the Guardian: “Around 25 years from now, where those [demand and supply] lines cross is known by some as the ‘jaws of death’ – the point at which we will not have enough water to supply our needs.”

The situation in Scotland is different. The country has around 100 times more water than it currently uses, while, incredibly, Loch Ness alone holds more water than all of the lakes in England and Wales combined.

Yet SEPA has already warned that climate change will bring increased uncertainty over supplies, and may exert pressure in areas that have not yet experienced scarcity.

Shortages are likely to be more localised, depending on rainfall patterns, and severe flooding is also expected to become more common.

The implications of water shortages will be massive. First, imagine the political dynamic between a water-rich Scotland in a political union with an England experiencing regular droughts. If it was ‘Scotland’s oil’, will nationalists take a similar line on water?

The wider effect will be even greater. As well as causing flooding and increasingly extreme weather events, climate change will also lead to shortages – either locally or nationally – in states across the world, with the poorest countries, which benefited the least from the industrial advances causing climate change, expected to be hit the hardest.

Historically, diminishing resources, combined with stretched populations, have consistently led humans to enter into violent conflict. Think of the wars brought about by the demand for gold, spices, minerals, or for oil and gas. Water is more critical to sustaining human life than any of them.

Droughts, floods and natural disasters, combined with growing conflict over an essential, but diminishing, resource. It may not be pleasant to think about, but as things stand, this is the future humanity faces. And if the devastation caused by Cyclone Idai still holds the power to shock, get used to it, because it’s set to become a lot more familiar.

Read the most recent article written by Liam Kirkaldy - RSE urges Commonwealth governments to take action on climate crisis

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