NAJIB SAAB Sept 1, 2020

Less than a week after the publication of figures on the unprecedented rise in global temperatures, a thermometer in Southern California’s Death Valley soared to almost 55 degrees Celsius, according to the U.S. National Weather Service, the highest temperature recorded anywhere in the world in the past 100 years.

Temperatures in Europe were also at their highest for several consecutive days, not only in the south of the continent, but also in the center and north of it. In parts of Europe, the temperature exceeded 37 degrees for a full week, and last year the Netherlands witnessed a temperature of over 40 degrees for the first time in history. While the temperature in Baghdad exceeded 51 degrees, in some areas of the Arctic the temperature even reached 38 degrees last June, leading to acceleration in the melting of ice.

The detailed figures, published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US, showed that every decade in the past sixty years has witnessed a higher average temperature compared to the previous decade.  

I recall the first report I wrote on climate change in 1988, during a period with extreme climate disasters including droughts and hurricanes. I said at the time, that this is only a prelude and an early rehearsal of what will happen when major climate change effects strike. At the time, I was undertaking advisory assignments for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), then led by Mustafa Kamal Tolba, in addition to my private architecture practice and environmental design consultancy.

I now have to admit that at the time, we didn’t expect climate havoc to arrive so quickly. Despite everything I read and wrote over the years, I did not envisage, until recently, to witness such radical changes in my lifetime.  

An incident last year changed my perception and alerted me to the reality that global warming is an immediate fact of today rather than a challenge for tomorrow. An acquaintance planning to build a house in the Netherlands, known for its cold weather and abundance of water, asked me to accompany him on a visit to his architect for advice.

Upon seeing the preliminary designs, my first suggestion was to increase the area of glass windows on the southern side, in order to capture the most sun for the longest possible time. Capturing direct sunlight, I thought, brings natural heat. The architect was quick to display data and charts showing that the real problem now, in this traditionally cold country, is no longer the frost, but rather high temperatures over extended periods and in different seasons, which calls for limiting rather than extending hours of direct sun to avoid overheating of the space.  

I was also surprised to see an option for an underground reservoir proposed to collect rainwater from the roof of the house. This seemed to be unusual, in a country known for its high rain and abundant rivers. For almost its entire history, the priority in the Netherlands has been keeping the water out, through dams and dykes, and the country has become the world’s leading expert at managing water.

Most infrastructure in the Netherlands is built in a way to get the water out as soon as possible once it rains. But in recent years, it’s becoming clear that rainfall patterns are becoming much more erratic, with more long dry periods such as in summer 2019 and spring 2020, so the country needs to relearn how to manage water shortages, rather than water abundance.  

We expected that the huge amount of recent scientific reports on the steady rise in temperatures to unprecedented levels, with the droughts that accompanied them in several regions of the world, would lead to a radical and rapid transformation among the skeptics. This was not the case with the US President Donald Trump, even though the highest world temperature had also just been recorded in the United States. While environmentalists waited for the tightening of restrictions on water use to prevent wasting it, the opposite actually happened.

The president ignored the news of record temperature from Eastern California, and in a speech contested a law that was passed 28 years ago, mandating that showerheads should not allow for more than 9.5 liters of water per minute. President Trump claimed he “cannot wash [his] beautiful hair properly” because of the limited water flow. He proposed having the water limit apply to every shower nozzle not the entire head.

Critics responded by saying this amendment, if implemented, would lead to an increase in wasted water by up to 4 times and higher utility bills.   Days after the President’s speech, record temperatures were followed by unprecedented fires in California, due to dried vegetation.

While California’s climate has always been fire prone, the link between climate change and bigger fires is inextricable, as higher temperatures dry out vegetation even more, making it more likely to burn, according to leading scientists. Still, President Trump didn’t change his mind to amend the law limiting water flow from shower heads.  

The planet is warming, the climate is changing, and water resources are dwindling from Baghdad to California, to Paris and Amsterdam and much beyond. This necessitates an immediate shift in public policies and personal practices. The US president must find an alternative method to wash and style his hair, without wasting water.