Water A Key In Resolving Climate Change

Water A Key In Resolving Climate Change

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. The authors call on States to make more concrete commitments to address the challenge.

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 over the past century and is rising by about 1% a year. 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. Furthermore, the report highlights the fact that poor water management tends to exacerbate the impacts of climate change, not only on water resources but on society as a whole.

The Chair of UN-Water, and President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Gilbert F. Houngbo, says : “If we are serious about limiting global temperature increases to below 2°C and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we must act immediately. There are solutions for managing water and climate in a more coordinated manner and every sector of society has a role to play. We simply cannot afford to wait.”

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. In addition to the impact on food production, the effects on physical and mental health – linked to disease, injury, financial loss and the displacement of people – are therefore likely to be considerable.

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.

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.

Wastewater treatment also contributes to climate change as it generates GHGs, accounting for an estimated 3% to 7% of all emissions. These emissions arise from both the energy required for wastewater treatment and the biochemical processes used. But because of the decomposition of the organic matter it contains, untreated wastewater is also a major source of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The report points out that wastewater harbours more energy than is needed for its treatment, provided, of course, that it is harnessed. It is estimated that worldwide, between 80% and 90% of wastewater is discharged to the environment without any form of treatment.

The report also mentions innovative water management interventions such as fog capture, or more traditional ones such as wetland protection, as well as proven ‘conservation agriculture’ techniques. These make it possible to preserve soil structure, organic matter and moisture, despite lower rainfall. Similarly, the ‘reuse’ of partially treated wastewater for agriculture and industry, without necessarily making it safe to drink, is another interesting approach.

Unfortunately, note the authors, 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,” observes Audrey Azoulay. 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.

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 Program. Launched in conjunction with World Water Day, the report provides decision-makers with knowledge and tools to formulate and implement sustainable water policies.