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A man walks over the parched bed of a reservoir on the outskirts of Chennai, India on May 17, 2017. (Photo: Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)

A man walks over the parched bed of a reservoir on the outskirts of Chennai, India on May 17, 2017. (Photo: Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)

UN Urges World to Act Now to Combat 'Looming Water Crisis'

"The water is draining out of the tub in some places, while it's overflowing in others."

Kenny Stancil

"We need to wake up to the looming water crisis."

That's what World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said Tuesday to mark the publication of a new report, which shows that as the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency intensifies floods and droughts, access to clean water is expected to become even more unequal—increasing the importance of sustainable resource management.

"Time is not on our side... catastrophic heatwaves, droughts, and flooding will increase in frequency and severity if we fail to act now."

2021 State of Climate Services: Water—compiled by the WMO, the weather branch of the United Nations, with input from more than 20 international organizations—finds that most countries are ill-prepared to handle the forecasted surge in what one reporter called "too much and too little water."

The report urges policymakers to "reduce the impacts of water-related disasters" and improve outcomes by swiftly ramping up investments in a variety of solutions, including "better climate services and end-to-end early warning systems."

"The water is draining out of the tub in some places, while it's overflowing in others," Maxx Dilley, director of the WMO Climate Programme, told Inside Climate News. "When scientists were starting to get a handle on what climate change was going to mean, an acceleration of the hydrological cycle was one of the things that was considered likely."

According to the report:

  • In the past 20 years, terrestrial water storage—the summation of all water on the land surface and in the subsurface, including soil moisture, snow and ice—has been lost at a rate of 1cm per year;
  • In 2018, 2.3 billion people were living in countries under water stress and 3.6 billion people faced inadequate access to water at least one month per year. By 2050, the latter is expected to be more than five billion;
  • Meanwhile, water-related hazards have increased in frequency for the past 20 years. Since 2000, flood-related disasters have increased by 134%, and the number and duration of droughts also increased by 29%; and
  • Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is vital to achieving long-term social, economic and environmental well-being. But, although most countries have advanced their level of IWRM implementation, 107 countries remain off track to hit the goal of sustainably managing their water resources by 2030.

The report is accompanied by a story map, which makes clear that "water lies at the heart of the global agenda on climate adaptation, sustainable development, and disaster risk reduction."

During his speech at Tuesday's launch event and in the report's foreword, Taalas noted that "increasing temperatures are resulting in global and regional precipitation changes, leading to shifts in rainfall patterns and agricultural seasons, with a major impact on food security and human health and well-being."

"This past year has seen a continuation of extreme, water-related events," Taalas continued. "Across Asia, extreme rainfall caused massive flooding in Japan, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, and India. Millions of people were displaced, and hundreds were killed."

"But it is not just in the developing world that flooding has led to major disruption," said the WMO chief. "Catastrophic flooding in Europe led to hundreds of deaths and widespread damage."

Taalas also pointed out that "lack of water continues to be a major cause of concern for many nations, especially in Africa."

Since 2000, WMO notes, drought has killed more than 700,000 people, with the majority of deaths reported in Africa.

Moreover, between 1970 and 2019, there were 11,072 disasters attributed to weather-, water-, and climate-related hazards that claimed over two million lives—roughly 70% of them in the world's Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

"There is good news, however," Taalas argued. "Most nations are determined to improve the way water is managed, with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reporting that water is a top adaptation priority in the vast majority (79%) of parties' Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris agreement."

Of the countries "that mention water as a top priority in their updated NDCs," the report states, "the majority highlight actions that relate to capacity building (57%), forecasting (45%), observing networks (30%), and data collection (28%)."

"However, 60% of National Hydrological Services—the national public agencies mandated to provide basic hydrological information and warning services to the government, the public, and the private sector—lack the full capacities needed to provide climate services for water," according to the report. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) face the greatest gaps.

When it comes to the U.N.'s sixth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 6)—to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all—"the world is seriously behind schedule," says the WMO. "In 2020, 3.6 billion people lacked safely managed sanitation services, 2.3 billion lacked basic hygiene services, and more than 2 billion live in water-stressed countries with lack of access to safe drinking water."

While the report estimates that "the current rates of progress need to quadruple in order to reach the global target of universal access by 2030," international funding for IWRM did not increase between 2015 and 2019. "Despite a 9% increase in financial pledges made to tackle SDG 6, official development assistance (ODA) commitments remained stable at US$8.8 billion."

Based on its findings, the report makes the following six strategic recommendations for policymakers:

  1. Invest in IWRM as a solution to better manage water stress, especially in SIDS and LDCs;
  2. Invest in end-to-end drought and flood early warning systems in at-risk LDCs, including for drought warning in Africa and flood warning in Asia;
  3. Fill the capacity gap in collecting data for basic hydrological variables which underpin climate services and early warning systems;
  4. Improve the interaction among national level stakeholders to co-develop and operationalize climate services with information users to better support adaptation in the water sector. There is also a pressing need for better monitoring and evaluation of socio-economic benefits, which will help to showcase best practices;
  5. Fill the data gaps for climate services in the water sector. Members' data on climate services for water is missing from 65 WMO Members and particularly from SIDS; and
  6. Join the Water and Climate Coalition. This is organized by WMO in response to the need for integrated policy developments and improved practical solutions. The coalition provides countries with support to improve assessment of water resources as well as forecasting and outlook services for water.

"Time is not on our side," stressed Taalas. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, he said, "is a stark reminder that catastrophic heatwaves, droughts, and flooding will increase in frequency and severity if we fail to act now."

"Climate services and early warning systems," he added, "give us a vital opportunity to prepare and react in a way that can save many lives and protect livelihoods and communities across the world."


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