22 March 2020
Climate change will affect the availability, quality and quantity of water needed for basic human needs, thus undermining enjoyment of the basic rights to safe drinking water and sanitation for billions of people, warns the latest UN World Water Development Report.Such a deterioration of the situation would only hinder achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6 which is part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, according to which access to safe drinking water and sanitation must be guaranteed for all within ten years. This will be a considerable challenge – 2.2 billion people currently do not have access to safely managed drinking water, and 4.2 billion, or 55% of the world's population, are without safely managed sanitation.
Water use has increased sixfold over the past century and is rising by about 1% a year. However, it is estimated that climate change, along with the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme events – storms, floods and droughts, will aggravate the situation in countries already currently experiencing ‘water stress’ and generate similar problems in areas that have not been severely affected.
Health effects, threat to biodiversity
Indeed, water quality will be affected by increased water temperatures and a decrease in dissolved oxygen, leading to a reduction in the self-purification capacity of freshwater basins. We will see increased risks of water pollution and pathogen contamination caused by floods or higher concentrations of pollutants during periods of drought.
Many ecosystems, particularly forests and wetlands, are also under threat, reducing biodiversity. Water supplies will be affected, not only for agriculture – which accounts for 69% of freshwater withdrawals – but also for industry, energy production and even fisheries.
Areas most at risk: archipelagos, mountains, tropics and Far North
Much of the impact of climate change on water resources will be manifested in the tropics, where most developing countries are located, with potentially apocalyptic consequences for small island states, some of which could be wiped off the map. Mountainous areas are also exceptionally vulnerable through impacts on mountain glaciers and snowcaps, which show a decreasing trend almost everywhere in the world.
Suggested solutions: adaptation and mitigation
In the face of these threats, the report highlights the two complementary strategies to be implemented – adaptation and mitigation:
- Adaptation encompasses a combination of natural, technical and technological options, as well as social and institutional measures to mitigate damage and exploit the few positive consequences of climate change. It is likely to have very rapid benefits, mainly at the local level.
- Mitigation consists of the human actions needed to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions while exploiting carbon sinks to reduce the amount of CO2 and other GHGs in the atmosphere. It can involve large geographical areas, but with gains that may spread over decades. However, the possibilities for mitigation in water management remain largely unrecognized.
Unfortunately, while the need to combat climate change through better management of the water cycle is well recognized, it is not being translated into reality. The word 'water' rarely appears in international climate agreements. The ‘nationally determined contributions’ submitted by States under the Paris Agreement remain general in nature, without proposing specific plans for water. While a majority of countries recognize water in their 'portfolio of actions', few of them have actually calculated the costs of these actions and even fewer have put forward specific projects. Meanwhile, the possibilities for synergies between adaptation and mitigation measures are often neglected.
Accessing climate funds
The question of finance is obviously crucial. The authors point out that water resources management and water supply and sanitation services are underfunded and require greater attention from States. They argue that there are increasing opportunities to systematically integrate adaptation and mitigation planning into water-related investments, in order to make them more attractive to donors.
A good example of this is a Green Climate Fund project in Sri Lanka. This aims to improve irrigation systems in vulnerable village communities and promote climate-smart agricultural practices in three river basins, offering both climate adaptation and mitigation benefits, while conserving water and protecting drinking water sources.
Various water and climate change initiatives can also bring co-benefits such as job creation, improved public health, poverty reduction, promotion of gender equality and improved livelihoods, further enhancing their attractiveness to donors.
The adoption of integrated adaptation and mitigation measures is a win-win proposition, conclude the authors of the report. They are clearly beneficial for the sustainable management of water resources and for the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. They also directly address the causes and consequences of climate change, including in terms of the response to extreme weather events. Finally, they contribute to the achievement of several of the Sustainable Development Goals.
The United Nations World Water Development Report is UN-Water’s flagship report on water and sanitation issues, focusing on a different theme each year. The report is published by UNESCO, on behalf of UN-Water and its production is coordinated by the UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme. Launched in conjunction with World Water Day, the report provides decision-makers with knowledge and tools to formulate and implement sustainable water policies.
The UNESCO Almaty Office will soon publish a presentation of the WWDR-2020 in Russian. Stay tuned!
Message from Ms Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of World Water Day