Water and Climate Change

Water is inextricably linked to the global climate crisis. Check how climate change affects the water cycles and availability.

Water insecurity has always been a persistent global challenge for socioeconomic development; however with increasing threats from climate change, it has created a new urgency around an old problem. Water is inextricably linked to the global climate crisis. It is the primary medium through which the world feels the impacts of climate change. Often climate change manifests itself by altering the hydrological cycle like increasing variability in precipitation. Higher temperatures and changes in precipitation pattern impact the quantity and quality of water resources through changes in distribution and characteristics of rainfall, snowmelt, river flows and groundwater. Global warming also influences water temperatures which can have substantial adverse impact on the quality of water and biodiversity. Such changes have direct implication on the water resources available to meet the needs of communities and ecosystems.  For example, increased intensity in rainfall owing to climate change can lead to greater peak runoffs but less groundwater infiltration, affecting water available for agriculture, drinking water, industries, energy production and ecosystem services. Climate change also directly impacts the demand for water and increases competition between different sectors like agriculture and energy. Complex water-related issues (e.g. transboundary water sharing, large hydropower projects, industrial water pollution) influenced by new climatic stressors can even destabilize national, regional, and global security and result in political instability, conflict and human displacement. The already susceptible poor and the marginalized communities are the biggest victims of climate change and water related risks. For example, globally women are responsible for over 70% of water-related chores and with climate change the impacts on their lives will be devastating.

As climate changes, frequency and intensity of water related extreme events like droughts, floods, cloudbursts, glacial lake outburst flows (GLOFs), and cyclones also intensify or alter, often with dire consequences including huge economic losses. Events like cyclones have the capacity to destroy and contaminate water sources and sanitation facilities, while droughts aggravate existing water scarcity in water stressed regions thereby negatively impacting livelihoods. Such conditions are particularly true for developing countries with limited infrastructure and recovery mechanisms. Rising sea levels pose serious implications for coastal aquifers, which supply substantial water to many cities and other users. In the current climate scenario, failure to properly manage water resources will have severe consequences on global sustainable development in all economic, social and environmental dimensions and jeopardize progress on poverty reduction and inequality targets. Hence, ensuring that everyone has access to safe water and sanitation services is a key climate change strategy for the years ahead.

It is important that we start recognizing that managing the impacts of climate change is closely linked to water and its role in sustainable development. Embracing adaptation and mitigation strategies focused on water is a triple-win solution because (1) by coordinating across sectors we can adapt to the harmful impacts of climate change including extreme weather events, ensure communities and industries have the water they need to thrive, and also reduce harmful emissions by making water supply more efficient; (2) meet the fundamental human right of safe drinking water and sanitation; and lastly (3) directly or indirectly, address the different outcomes of several interlinked SDGs besides SDG 6 on water (UN Water 2019). Some innovative technologies, practices and policies currently practiced around the world include flood insurance, smart water system, rain water harvesting, water recycling, water trading, effective water pricing, improved water treatment plants, green infrastructure and ecosystem based adaptations like installation of riparian barriers, among others (OECD 2013). Further, UNESCO and UN Water report clearly highlights that water is a critical connector and the key to attaining the goals and targets of three major global frameworks namely climate change (2015 Paris Agreement), sustainable development (2030 Agenda and its SDGs), and disaster risk reduction (Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction). Even though all three of these frameworks are separate agreements with their own set of goals, deliverables, and monitoring and evaluation processes, water resource management serves as a common overlapping agenda. There is wide scope for concrete action on climate-resilient water management under them. Coordinating cohesive action on water can enhance and fasten the impact of action taken under these frameworks and reduce competition over already limited funding.

Given that uncertainty of climate change can no longer be used as an excuse for inaction, countries and organizations need to start forging a road to a climate resilient future. Climate resilient water management presents a perfect start and opportunity for stakeholders to decelerate climate change and adapt to the unavoidable impacts, at the same time protect us from extremes events and end poverty and inequality.

Sudeshna Maya Sen | Deputy Manager – Climate Change

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