Ensuring universal access to water in a changing climate

As the global climate changes, the challenge of sharing a decreasing and altering supply of fresh water among the world’s population will grow. Louise Whiting, WaterAid’s Senior Policy Analyst – Water Security & Climate Change, looks at the shifting situation and what we can do now to protect the poorest people in the future.


24 Feb 2015

Contrary to some headlines, most of us are unlikely to experience large-scale war over access to water. However, unfortunately, for much of the world’s population, water shortages will occur, driven by poor management, unfair sharing and an increasingly unpredictable climate. These shortages will be felt most by the poorest people

Deteriorating water quality and growing numbers of users will threaten the everyday water security of 748 million people – one in ten – already without safe drinking water, and the millions more who lack a safe, reliable supply. Long queues and local conflict will become increasingly common.

Water scarcity is driven by a range of factors, including growing populations and consumption levels, pollution and ineffective management. No matter the cause, research suggests 2.7 billion people – a third of the world’s population – live in basins where water is severely scarce for at least one month every year.

Management of scarcity is possible – for example, Singapore, a tiny island with poor water resources, keeps the taps running and the toilets flushing. But Singapore is a rich country with vast resources and the latest technologies at its disposal. It is able to desalinate and recycle water to meet the needs of its small population.

The countries where WaterAid works have far fewer available solutions, and demand for water is growing fast. As water becomes scarcer, these countries will need to focus on how water is allocated, regulated and managed, and answer difficult political questions about whose water needs should be prioritised. Water and sanitation are basic human rights; the essential water needs of every individual must be met before other uses for water are considered.

Climate change will make things worse

The effects of climate change on water manifest in different ways: too much, in flooding and rising sea levels; too little, in extreme droughts; at the wrong time, as in unpredictable weather patterns; or of the wrong quality, for example, too salty or polluted.

People around the world are already feeling the burden of climate change. According to the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, temperatures have already increased, rainfall patterns are changing and ice sheets are melting, altering global freshwater systems. Researchers predict that climate change will erode water quality globally, making clean drinking water an even more precious resource.

Climate predictions are bleak. In South Asia, for example – where climate variability already threatens lives, food security, health and wellbeing – floods caused by extreme rainfall, rising seas and cyclones could cause widespread damage to infrastructure, livelihoods and settlements.

Seas will continue to rise, affecting the quality of water in South Asia’s vast deltas that are already sinking because of groundwater extraction, floodplain engineering and dams trapping sediments. Rapid urbanisation raises the risk of floodwaters being contaminated, which exposes people to disease and toxins.

Although climate change will affect all South Asians, poor people will feel it most. Those living in flood-prone areas, those who rely on unsafe water sources, and those who do not have a safe place to go to the toilet are the most vulnerable and the least able to adapt.

The UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the climate change threat. People living in extreme poverty – on less than $1.25 a day – have contributed little to the carbon in the atmosphere that is affecting the global climate. We must ensure their lives are not made more difficult by an inability to agree on cutting carbon emissions, and provide technical and financial support to aid adaptation to a more volatile climate.

The challenges are enormous, but not insurmountable

We are improving access to safe water and sanitation in 26 of the world’s poorest countries. We have seen first-hand the stress communities face when waterpoints fail because they weren’t put in the right places, because water tables are falling, or because there’s too much competition for a limited supply.

WaterAid has announced plans to support 29 West African communities to help them better prepare for, mitigate against, and recover from disasters, such as droughts, floods, famines and epidemics.

With strengthened water and sanitation infrastructure, communities can better cope when disaster strikes – whether it’s Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia, cholera in Ghana, or increasingly severe dry seasons unbroken by monsoon rains. In Burkina Faso, for instance, heavy reliance on a community’s single borehole for everything from watering livestock to washing clothes was relieved by adding smaller, shallower wells for general needs. Water from the deep borehole could then be saved for drinking.

Rainwater-harvesting tanks for homes and schools are another way to conserve water in preparation for long dry seasons. We are demonstrating how it is possible to work with and support communities to manage threats to water resources. For the lives of the world’s poorest people to improve, they need a reliable supply of safe water. There is likely to be enough water in 2030 for the drinking, sanitation and hygiene needs of everyone, everywhere. Whether everyone will be able to access it is another matter.

How our precious water resources are managed in the face of climate change, and how every drop is allocated, is of concern to everyone on the planet. We cannot leave it to the next generation.

Louise Whiting is WaterAid’s Senior Policy Analyst – Water Security & Climate Change. She tweets as @louwahwah and you can read more of her blogs here.

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