While mankind has made rapid technological and cultural advancement in recent decades, many experts say we are about to pay a heavy price for such progress. Scientists are still debating the exact nature of climate change, but most agree that it is happening – and that it requires immediate action to prevent irreversible damage to our planet, the species it sustains and our way of life.

In this article we delve into the complex topic of threats to our environment and outline four that have become most urgent.

1. Water Scarcity

Around 1.1 billion people worldwide do not have free access to water and 2.7 billion people find it scarce for at least one month of the year. Water scarcity is probably the biggest environmental threat we face today. In parts of the West, drought has been a growing concern for consumers and agricultural users alike. But in other parts of the world, water scarcity is a matter of survival; 80% of illnesses in developing countries are linked to a lack of clean water and sanitation. A quarter of all deaths under the age of five can also be attributed to water-borne disease.

Some parts of the world have always been naturally dry of course. So why is water becoming more scarce now? In some parts of the world, like the Colorado River Basin for example, natural dryness is compounded with human mismanagement, pollution, waste or overuse. Sadly though, water scarcity is most frequently a result of economic factors: often there is sufficient water but people cannot access or distribute it because of poor infrastructure or ethnic and political conflicts. This is the case in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Janet Redman, Climate Policy Director at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. says the implications of water scarcity are huge: “We have built our society around where we can get water, when we can grow food, how we can house ourselves. After living off the environment for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of generations we have grown to understand it. But climate change reduces our ability to predict where sources of water will be.” The potential for political strife due to water shortages is already playing out on a small scale: conflicts in India, Kenyan tribes clashing in times of drought. Who knows what might happen if entire groups or even nations find themselves lacking clean water?

2. Deforestation

Forests account for less than a third of the Earth’s land surface but they might just be keeping the whole planet alive. Trees release water vapor into the atmosphere, drive the global water cycle and absorb the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Trees stop land from drying out and maintain a rich productive soil under and around them. When a forest is cut down, this entire balance is thrown off, and land quickly turns into arid desert.

Every year, agriculturally driven demand destroys huge swathes of forest – an area roughly equating to the size of Panama. Logging (often illegal), overgrazing and wildfires all contribute to the decline. At this rate, all the world’s rainforest could be gone in less than a century. This represents not only an inconceivable loss of life for the thousands of species that cannot survive anywhere else, deforestation has a huge socio-economic impact too: “Forests play a fundamental role in combating rural poverty, ensuring food security and providing people with livelihoods,” says José Graziano da Silva, Food and Agriculture Organisation Director-General.

Ironically, the biggest culprits in tree destruction – South America and the Caribbean – are also currently taking the lead in forest protection, with 21% of their forest areas under national legal protection. However, da Silva says moves like this are only the beginning; he wants to see further protection and more sustainable use of forest resources to reverse the trend.