Climate change and water
1. Context and analysis of the impacts of climate change:
- Water is a scarce resource, although it may not seem so at first glance. The fact is that although water accounts for 71% of the earth’s surface, just 2.5% of the water available is fresh water. Of that amount, 70% corresponds to ice caps and glaciers and almost 30% is located in underground aquifers. Just 0.3% is on the earth’s surface, which illustrates the significant difficulty in exploiting this resource.
- Climate change has a two-fold effect on countries and communities, with a heavier impact in the less developed regions, because not only is it one of the root causes of poverty; it also perpetuates this condition by limiting the possibilities for economic development and growth.
- Agriculture is the area where mankind uses the most water, accounting for about 70% of available resources on average. Industry accounts for 19%, mostly for cooling and transportation purposes, but also as a solvent. The remaining 11% is absorbed by domestic consumption.
- A major increase in the pressure exerted on this resource is predicted in the years to come, on both the supply and demand sides:
- As regards the demand side, there will be a sharp increase due to demographic and economic growth. This is confirmed by the following graph, which shows that a significant imbalance between demand needs and existing supply is expected by 2030 in a business as usual
- The supply will be reduced due to the impact of climate change. According to reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change will have serious consequences for both the availability of this resource and for its geographical distribution and major changes are expected by the end of this century. In some areas, these consequences may lead to reductions of up to 40% in the water resources available on the earth’s surface compared to the situation at the start of the century.
Water scarcity currently affects over 40% of the world population and this figure is expected to rise. The two-fold increase in pressure on the planet’s water resources will lead to profound social, economic and environmental changes of vital importance that will not only cause the available water reserves to drop; but also for them to deteriorate significantly. The extent of the impact and the consequences associated to this issue differ depending on the level of economic development:
- The developed economies will have to deal with increasing water stress that will give rise to specific problems with supply in the years to come. Climate change will make its presence felt in recurring droughts and extreme weather phenomena, with the consequences we are all familiar with for life and economic activity in these territories.
- For the less developed countries, the scarcity of water resources is an obvious barrier to human and economic development and to improving living conditions. According to the most recent figures published by the World Health Organisation (WHO), 9% of the world’s population does not currently have guaranteed access to drinking-water. This is the equivalent to 663 million people. At least 1.8 billion people worldwide use drinking-water sources that are contaminated with faecal matter.
- The increase in pressure on water resources has already caused and is continuing to cause frequent degradation and destruction of ecosystems (affecting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 13, 14 and 15). This aspect takes on particular importance in the economies of less developed countries, as they have a lower level of administrative protection, coupled with a significant deficit in environmental awareness.
2. Progress made and challenges yet to be faced:
- This situation has led various supranational bodies to set targets geared towards improving universal access to water resources and protecting them from deterioration.
- The United Nations’ Millennium Goals set the target of “halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to drinking water and basic sanitation services”. An incredible level of progress has already been achieved, as displayed by the figures for 2015, which confirm that this goal has been met on a global basis. Some 147 countries have now met this target, with major improvements recorded in regions of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
- Aware that there is still a long way to go, the United Nations introduced a new specific goal (Goal 6) in its new global agenda (Sustainable Development Goals), which seeks to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. Various different targets have been introduced to achieve this:
- By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.
- By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.
- By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated waste water and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.
- By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawal and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity.
- By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate.
- By 2020, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes.
- By 2030, expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies.
- Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management.
3. Call for action:
- The targets for managing and improving water resources, as set out in the global framework for action represented by the SDGs, seek to approach the problem from a global perspective, maximising the benefits derived from each of these targets and boosting compliance with the remainder of the goals.
- Proper diagnosis of the link between water and other natural resources. One measure to which priority should be given is a thorough diagnosis of the availability and quality of the water resources. This diagnosis from the supply perspective should be completed with an analysis from the demand perspective, in two areas:
- Analysis of the link between water and other resources; for example, energy.
- Analysis of the importance of water resources in the various sectors of the economy (for example, the agrofoods sector, the tourism sector, etc.) and of the impact of a possible problem with supply.
- Policies focusing on efficiency and demand management from a broad perspective:
- Introduction of a tax framework to reinforce the water pricing signal, so as to help rationalise consumption.
- Increase in information provided and awareness campaigns for consumers.
- The promotion and dissemination of technological standards that reduce water consumption in equipment and processes.
- Analysis of the impact of climate change and the adaptation strategies that are available. Climate change will impact every sector of the economy. The water sector will be one of the worst affected. In that regard, it is crucial to conduct an initial analysis of the regional impact of climate change on the availability and quality of water resources. Based on this analysis, water planning should include the key aspects that are affected by climate change.4.