Worsening cyclones, bushfires and flooding no longer 'freak incidents'

The 2023 The Global Water Monitor report has found there has been an increase in some water-related natural disasters including drought and flooding.

Record-breaking hot weather altered the distribution of water around the globe in 2023, causing billions of dollars in damage and killing thousands of people. Cyclones and flooding were more extreme in Australia, New Zealand, Greece and Myanmar and drought more severe in places like the Mediterranean, South America and the Horn of Africa.

Water expert Professor Albert Van Dijk from the Australian National University said intensive storms like those seen recently in Queensland were not "isolated freak incidents" but rather part of a global weather pattern. “In 2023, we saw cyclones behave in unexpected and deadly ways. The longest-lived cyclone ever recorded battered southeastern Africa for weeks... we can expect to see more of these extreme events,” he said.

Left - a flooded patio next to a river on the Gold Coast. Right - a man filming the flooded river from his car.
Queensland's Gold Coast flooded on New Year's Day after heavy rainfall swelled rivers. Source: AAP

Van Dijk is the lead author of the 2023 Global Water Monitor report which was released on Thursday and concluded there was an increase in the frequency of droughts, heavy rainfall and flooding. He believes changes in the weather cycle are silently triggering extreme events that people don’t generally associate with water.

“What our report shows is that water is not just in the ground or in a reservoir. Water is also bushfires — they don’t happen as often if the air is moist and the forest is moist. Water is also natural disasters. Floods killed thousands of people because two dams broke,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

“Water plays a central role in the world. Without water no agriculture. Without water no nature. Without water no survival.”

A woman stands by a body of water flowing over a cut off road on Coomera River on Gold Coast on January 2.
The Coomera River cut off a road on the Gold Coast on January 2. Source: AAP

'Simple' solution to fixing the climate crisis

Unlike bushfires, cyclones are not becoming more frequent, but when they strike they are often stronger and therefore cause more damage.

The estimated direct damage bill caused by Cyclone Mocha which hit Myanmar on May 14 is believed to be in excess of $2.24 billion, the equivalent of 3.4 per cent of the nation's GDP. In Argentina, drought is believed to have cost the nation $20 billion, which is 3 per cent of GDP.

But it's not just money that is at stake, in war-torn Libya, the collapse of dams after Storm Daniel impacted around 250,000 people and destroyed 10,000 buildings. More than 4,300 people are believed to have died and 8,500 were reported missing, presumed dead.

Richer nations like Australia can afford to mitigate the worst impacts of extreme weather disasters that are amplified by climate change. But they won't be able to completely shield themselves from these events.

Living on the Gold Coast, Van Dijk recently watched as wild weather uprooted powerlines, cutting electricity supply to over 125,000 homes across the state. "In theory, you could say, let's put them underground. It wouldn't be a bad idea, but that'd be extraordinary, prohibitively expensive," he said.

"By far the cheapest measure would be to quickly reduce emissions. It's as simple as that. It's just politically not very tolerable to some, or at least not to some vested interests.

"Obviously it won't change the weather next year, but it will change the weather in 10 or 20 years time."

Water shortage will trigger higher food prices and war

After the European satellite agency Copernicus announced 2023 was the hottest year on record, Amnesty International said climate change was clearly having "serious consequences for human rights".

As one of the world’s biggest exporters of fossil fuels, which contribute to global heating, Australia has struck a deal with the small island nation of Tuvalu to give its citizens residency as they are displaced by climate change.

As increases in water impact the Pacific, Van Dijk predicts drought will displace populations in other dry regions.

“In Australia, we’ve responded by building more reservoirs and desalination plants, but in other countries they’ll just run out of water. That’s what you see in places like the Horn of Africa which has large refugee problems, because people just don’t have water. And if you don’t have water you have to leave,” he said.

Most African refugees won’t have the means to travel to far off countries, like Australia and are more likely to simply move to the closest places where they can source water. As resources are stretched and people seek asylum, unrest is likely to be triggered as people fight for agricultural land and resources.

“Drought makes life impossible and causes conflict and that can turn into war,” he said. “There is enough water in the world, but of course there’s a big access difference. You can transport a bottle of water but you can’t transport a large volume. What we can expect are increased food prices and natural disasters.”

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