More than half of the world to suffer water scarcity by 2050, UN report shows

Climate change will severely affect access to water for billions of people worldwide, in as little as 30 years

A boy watches as 73-year-old Iraqi farmer Abu Ali uses a shovel to dig in a stream of water in the village of Sayyed Dakhil, to the east of Nasariyah city some 300 kilometres (180 miles) south of Baghdad, on March 20, 2018. - Since childhood, Abu Ali and his family have lived off their land in Sayyed Dakhil, where there used to be no need for a well, but a creeping drought is now threatening agriculture and livelihoods in the area.
Weather patterns are largely to blame for the crisis, but while rain accounts for 30 percent of Iraq's water resources, the remaining 70 percent is drawn from rivers and marshes shared with Iran, Turkey and Syria, which has played a part in Iraq's drought. (Photo by HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI / AFP)
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More than half the world’s population will live in water-stressed regions by 2050, a new United Nations report has revealed.

Climate change will severely affect the availability of water for basic human needs and jeopardise access to safe drinking water and sanitation for billions, the UN World Water Development Report 2020 said.

The report, released today on the occasion of World Water Day, called for immediate action and investment in the world's most precious resource.

The biggest impacts of climate change will be felt through water

“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,” said Gilbert Houngbo, chairman of UN Water.

“There are solutions for managing water and climate in a more co-ordinated manner and every sector of society has a role to play. We simply cannot afford to wait.”

Water scarcity has already led to waves of migration and the Arab region is among the most vulnerable in the world to water shortages.

Worldwide, there are four billion people who live with severe water scarcity for at least one month a year.

"When we talk about climate change, the importance of water seems to be recognised but, when it comes to action, be it financial or otherwise, the talk falls on deaf ears," said Rick Connor, the report's main author.

“The biggest impacts of climate change will be felt through water. You think about extremes, floods and droughts and water scarcity but climate change will also affect water quality, biodiversity and overall ecological health.”

Financing for water security must be paired with climate change financing, the report said.

Currently, three times more funding is needed for the global population to have access to safe water and sanitation by 2030.Mona Al Marzooqi / The National 
Currently, three times more funding is needed for the global population to have access to safe water and sanitation by 2030.Mona Al Marzooqi / The National 

Just 2.6 per cent of 2016 climate financing, which totalled $455 billion (Dh1.67 trillion), was allocated directly to water management.

“You have to take a step back and look at where the policies are coming from,” said Mr Connor.

“Water is seen as a social or environmental issue, whereas energy and industry are seen as economic issues. The way the world is and the way decisions are made is that the economy is generally prioritised over social or environmental issues.

“In terms of the economic weight, energy is probably 12 times more important than water, so of course that’s why most of funding really focuses on energy.”

Currently, three times more funding is needed for the global population to have access to safe water and sanitation by 2030.

Better water management can both store and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

“Water does not need to be a problem, it can be part of the solution,” said Audrey Azoulay, director general of Unesco. “Water can support efforts to both mitigate and adapt to climate change.”

One suggestion offered in the report is the treatment of wastewater, which accounts for three to seven per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Globally, more than 80 per cent of all wastewater is released to the environment without treatment.

But methane gas can be extracted from treated waste water and used for energy generation.

Fog capture and the conservation of wetlands, which can store twice as much carbon as forests, are advised as possible water management interventions.

If emissions remain high, however, temperatures in the Arab region could increase by 4 to 5°C above pre-industrial levels in the next 80 years.

The northern part of the Horn of Africa, the upper Nile Valley and the south-west regions of the Arabian Peninsula are the most vulnerable.

Gender equality will take a hit as water scarcity increases because women and children are usually responsible for household tasks related to water collection.

More time spent fetching water means less time in school.

The politicisation of water resources and destruction of infrastructure in war zones is already a challenge in the region.

“Inequalities in access to and control of water resources persist, especially across urban-rural and gender lines,” the report said.

“Almost all Arab states are highly interdependent, as they often rely on shared, strategically important trans-boundary surface and groundwater resources. This compounds the challenges of achieving coherent, integrated water policy at the national level.”

Nonetheless, the report notes water can be a powerful connector between states in the battle against climate change.

“The political inertia has to do with the way things are set up with climate change as one issue and water as another issue,” said Mr Connor.

“Water is a connector, something that brings these issues together. If you start to focus on water, other development goals will happen.”