As Climate Change Threatens, Water Cooperation Becomes Vital

March 20, 2013

  • Eighty-five percent of the world’s population lives on the driest half of the land, 783 million people do not have access to clean water, and 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation.
  • The economic and health effects already being felt will be exacerbated by climate change and its effect on water ecosystems.

Among the numerous challenges climate change will present to the world’s poorest citizens, its effects felt through water will be some of the most hard-hitting.

The recent report Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C World Must Be Avoided, commissioned by the World Bank, provides a clear picture of the planet in a 4-degree-warmer world and the disruptive impact on agriculture, water resources, ecosystems, and human health. It reveals that between 43 percent and 50 percent of the global population will be living in water-scarce countries by the end of this century. As a consequence, there likely will be increasing aridity and drought in many developing countries.

In the face of this, the theme of this year’s World Water Day on March 22 is the International Year of Water Cooperation. Although water scarcity is often viewed as a source of potential conflict, increasing pressure from a changing climate can also be harnessed to continue a well-established tradition of peaceful cooperation on water issues.

Water at the heart of the adverse effects of climate change

At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, where a study cited the water supply crises as among the top 5 highest risks by likelihood and impact, World Bank Group President Jim Kim referred to water as “the teeth of climate change.”

" Looking forward, it is clear that water management practices of the past are no longer adequate. Transformations in behavior, institutions, and policies will be at the center of governments', companies', and our attention. "

Rachel Kyte

Vice President for Sustainable Development, World Bank

Climate change impacts are often experienced as water-related events, such as flooding, drought, or extreme storms. Extreme weather events associated with a changing climate carry both economic and human costs. Economic losses from recent floods in Thailand, Pakistan, and Australia were devastating: in Thailand alone, losses due to flooding in 2011 resulted in losses of approximately $45 billion, or about 13 percent of GDP.

When considering the human costs of climate change, it will be those least able to adapt – the poor and most vulnerable – that will be hit the hardest.

“Looking forward, it is clear that water management practices of the past are no longer adequate. Transformations in behavior, institutions, and policies will be at the center of governments', companies', and our attention,” said Rachel Kyte, the World Bank’s vice president for sustainable development.

Poor sanitation conditions exacerbated by extreme weather events

Roughly 2.5 billion people lack access to sanitation and one billion live without access to clean water, which leads to 4,000 child deaths per day from water-borne illnesses. Economic losses from lack of sanitation cost up to 7 percent of GDP in some countries. For communities whose residents defecate in the open, as over 1 billion people currently practice every day, flooding from extreme weather events has the potential to create an even more dangerous environment for children by increasing opportunities for diarrheal disease.

Cooperation key to facing climate change

By declaring 2013 as the International Year of Water Cooperation, the United Nations is drawing attention to a well-established history of disparate parties cooperating to solve water resource management issues. Eighty percent of the world’s rivers cross national boundaries. Hundreds of agreements on managing transboundary water exist, including 90 international water agreements to manage shared water basins in Africa. As climate change increases the volatility of water ecosystems, cooperation on access and stewardship of water resources will need to ensure human wellbeing and sustainable development.

The World Bank commitment

The World Bank’s push for sustainable development recognizes that water impacts food, education, energy, health, gender equity, and livelihoods, and that focusing solely on economic growth in the present and delaying environmental sustainability considerations to a future date, is increasingly untenable. The world is already facing an urgent water crisis, and the situation will likely worsen because of climate change.