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Improved water management is crucial for climate action – UN-Water policy brief

Improved water management is crucial for climate action – UN-Water policy brief

Water management must play a central role in adapting to the worst effects of climate change and reducing greenhouse gases, according to a new UN-Water Policy Brief.

Released in the context of the Climate Action Summit and the opening of the 74th UN General Assembly in New York, the brief argues that there are significant co-benefits to managing climate and water in a more coordinated and sustainable manner.

The way we manage water resources can help us tackle climate change in two ways,” says Mr Gilbert F. Houngbo, Chair of UN-Water and President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD): “First, by coordinating across sectors we can reduce the impacts of floods and droughts, adapt to the expected increase in unpredictability and ensure communities and businesses have the water they need to thrive. And second, we can reduce harmful emissions by making water supply more sustainable.”

In the new policy brief, developed by an expert group, UN-Water highlights that climate change increases variability in the water cycle and makes extreme weather events more frequent, which threatens billions of people’s access to water and sanitation services and places huge stress on ecosystems. At the same time, growing demand for water is leading to an increase in energy-intensive pumping, treatment and transportation, thereby raising carbon emissions and exacerbating climate change.

Among the brief’s five key messages is the need to ensure transboundary cooperation in climate change adaptation to avoid maladaptive consequences from a basin perspective and also harness the potential co-benefits of improved regional cooperation. The Water Convention, serviced by UNECE, provides a legal and intergovernmental framework for cooperation between countries on climate change adaptation in shared basins, which are home to more than 40% of the world’s population and account for an estimated 60% of global freshwater flow.

In a context of increasing water stress, the Convention supports the sustainable and equitable management of water resources. Working together across borders is also essential to strengthen resilience to water-related disasters including floods, droughts and storms.

The Water Convention will contribute to the Year of Action launched by the Global Commission on Adaptation in the context of the UN Climate Action Summit, in particular, to its water priority initiative focused on resilient basin futures. This aims to support efforts in at least 100 river and groundwater basins to plan and finance climate adaptation and resilience measures from source to sea.

The new Policy Brief brief further emphasizes that national and regional policy and planning must view water management through a climate resilience lens. Increased investment is needed to improve hydrological data, institutions and governance, education and capacity development, risk assessment and knowledge sharing. Crucially, lower-income populations, who are disproportionally affected by climate change, must be reached through targeted strategies that help them cope with new conditions.

Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, compared to 2 degrees, can have huge implications on water resources as it may reduce the proportion of the world’s population exposed to an increase in water stress by climate change by up to 50%.  “Uncertainty about the future cannot be an excuse for inaction today,” says Mr. Houngbo. “We cannot afford to wait to make water management more climate resilient and sustainable. We have the tools, methods and financing mechanisms at our disposal. We must act now.”

Many countries and international river basin authorities are already implementing solutions that meet integrated water and climate challenges, but more needs to be done.

According to the key messages of the Policy Brief, meeting the climate challenge means:
1. Acting now

Uncertainty about the future cannot be an excuse for inaction today; if the world is to limit the global temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century, action must be taken immediately. Securing water for communities, economies and ecosystems is critical for poverty reduction, green energy transformation and creating a buffer from natural disasters. Climate policy must address water across all sectors of the economy and the environment to ensure a climate-resilient and sustainable future for all.

2. Considering water as part of the solution

Improved water management, including sanitation, is an essential component of successful climate mitigation and adaptation strategies, as called for in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Water is also key to attaining the goals and targets of the Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030. Climate-resilient water management can therefore act as a mechanism of coherence among these global frameworks.

3. Improving water management practices

As countries begin to review and implement their national plans in the context of the Paris Agreement, there is a unique opportunity to improve and enhance water management practices in ways that will allow communities, countries and basin authorities to make confident, risk-informed decisions that can help to increase climate resilience, improve ecosystem health and reduce the risk of water-related disasters.

4. Ensuring transboundary cooperation in adaptation

Transboundary cooperation is needed to address climate impacts that cross national boundaries (for example, droughts or flooding of transboundary rivers), to avoid maladaptive consequences from a basin perspective and to harness the potential co-benefits of improved regional cooperation, such as reduced uncertainty due to exchange of data, peace and stability, enlarged planning space, and shared costs and benefits.

5. Rethinking financing

Climate finance for water resource management and sanitation supports community climate resilience and job creation at the local level and helps to improve sustainable development outcomes. Innovative, blended finance solutions for water and climate, such as green and blue climate bonds, can help to leverage climate investment across the economy. Barriers to increased access to climate finance, such as lack of capacity and lack of institutional coordination, must be urgently addressed.

Read the UN-Water Policy Brief on Climate Change and Water

Note to editors

Over the last decade, floods, storms, heat-waves, droughts and other water-related events have caused more than 90% of major natural disasters. (UNDRR, 2015)

An estimated 3.6 billion people worldwide now live in areas that are potentially water scarce at least one month per year (UNESCO, 2018)

Today 1 in 3 people or 2.2 billion people around the world lack safe drinking water. (WHO/UNICEF 2019)

700 million people worldwide could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030. (Global Water Institute, 2013)

By 2050, rising populations in flood-prone lands, climate change, deforestation, loss of wetlands and rising sea levels are expected to increase the number of people vulnerable to flood disaster to 2 billion. (UNESCO, 2012)

About UN-Water

UN-Water coordinates the efforts of UN entities and international organizations working on water and sanitation issues. Over 30 UN organizations carry out water and sanitation programmes, reflecting the fact that water issues run through all of the UN’s main focus areas. UN-Water’s role is to coordinate so that the UN family ‘delivers as one’ in response to water related challenges. 

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