INSTANBUL — The World Water Forum — the largest gathering of water-sector public policy makers, private-sector vendors and non-profit organizations — got underway this morning in Istanbul with a dash of glitz and a glut of gloom.

“Everyday, thousands of children die as a result of complications due to consumption of unclean water,” Turkish President Abdullah Gul said in opening remarks. “There is significant discrepancy and injustice between different regions and countries around the world in terms of daily water compensation.”

A throng 28,000 strong is attending the triennial event, including three princes, three presidents, five prime ministers or heads of state, 90 ministers, hundreds of non-governmental organizations and private-sector representatives — and a coterie of about 100 demonstrators who gathered today to protest the privatization of public water and wastewater systems and were forcibly removed by Turkish police.

Few, if any, of the attendees question whether climate change is having an impact on water supplies. Evidence, from withering vineyards in California to inoperable nuclear reactors in France to a rise in water-borne diseases and infant mortality, is inescapable. Indeed, climate change’s impact on fresh water supplies is in many ways easier to spot than other climate trends.

“The rainy season used to start in late September, but over the past five years, we’ve been witnessing delays,” Samer Talozi, professor of Water Resources & Irrigation Engineering at the Jordan University of Science & Technology, tells Grist. “This year it only started in mid-January.

This has affected farmers and farming communities the most. The delay in the rainy season is shortening the growing season; reducing the amount of water available in the summer for irrigated agriculture; and limiting the options of rain fed agriculture during the rainy season.”

Likewise, manufacturing can be seriously hurt by climate change. Eleven of the world’s 14 largest semiconductor manufacturers — which require ultra clean water for manufacturing silicon chips — are in the Asia-Pacific region, where water scarcity is a growing problem. A water-related shutdown at a fabrication plant could result in a $100 million to $200 million in missed revenue in a quarter, according to a report released this month by Pacific Institute, Oakland, Calif., and Ceres in Boston.

The stakes for human health are particularly high. According to the World Health Organization, climate change will likely:

  • contaminate coastal surface and groundwater resources due to sea level rise, resulting in saltwater intrusion into rivers, deltas, and aquifers;
  • increase water temperatures, leading to more algal and bacterial blooms that further contaminate water supplies;
  • and contribute to environmental health risks associated with water.

For instance, changes in precipitation patterns are likely to increase flooding, and as a result mobilize more pathogens and contaminants. It is estimated that by 2030 the risk of diarrhea will be up to 10 percent higher in some countries due to climate change. Diarrhea kills 2.2 million children every year, the vast majority of them under the age of five and living in Ethiopia, India and other developing countries.

Access to sanitation has improved only marginally in recent years, according to Dave Trouba, communications director for the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) in Geneva, which operates under the auspices of the WHO. The number of those without basic sanitation has declined to 2.5 billion from 2.6 billion in the past few years.

“We’re on track to reach the U.N. Millennium Development Goals for access to clean water, but we’re way off track the Millennium Development Goals for sanitation,” says Trouba. “Sanitation isn’t rocket science. It’s hard work.”

The U.N. goal is, by 2015, to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. More than 800 million people worldwide lack access to clean water.

The World Water Forum continues through March 22.

Ferguson is a freelance journalist based in Arlington, Mass.