Water Security

Climate change, population growth, and increasing energy consumption per capita, have caused a steady decline in the world’s supply of clean water. This reality has significant consequences for humanitarian operators. Aid workers in the field will encounter a greater need for assistance, both in terms of the number of people requiring aid and the depth of their vulnerabilities. Faced with these operational challenges and in light of the slow-onset nature of many of these water-related hazards (such as drought), humanitarian agencies will need to adapt to new ways of introducing and sustaining operations.1

In rural agricultural areas, conceptions “water security” give greater emphasis to the sustainable supply of water for irrigation, whereas urban spaces with economies built on the provision of services may focus on the protection of safe water for human consumption. In addition to the sustainable development of water resources, the achievement of water security is dependent on the ability to safeguard water systems, protect against water-related hazards, and ensure reliable access to water of a sufficient quantity and quality for human health and livelihoods.2

General Contributors to Water Insecurity

Multiple factors contribute to the growing scarcity of safe water. These factors include population growth and demographic shifts, water demand, and climate change.3

Population growth & demographic shifts:

The global population is set to increase by 2.6 billion over the next 45 years and will surely test limited (and diminishing) water resources. The most rapid rates of population increase are found in places with already scarce water resources, including sub-Saharan and Northern Africa.

As populations migrate from rural areas to urban ones – oftentimes due to environmental factors like drought – the resultant influx puts a strain on urban water infrastructure. Compounding the problem, those who migrate from rural to urban areas increase their water consumption from an average of 8 to 27 liters per day.4

Water demand:

As economies develop and populations grow, their demand for energy increases. Water is a necessary component of all forms of energy production (including “alternative” energy sources) and as greater amounts of energy are required governments may have to make a trade-off between allocating water for energy production and water for agricultural/domestic/industrial uses.

Climate change:

Decreased precipitation leads to a higher frequency and duration of droughts, especially in southern Europe, Africa, and Central Asia. Those who already live in areas with low participation are especially vulnerable. The number affected is significant: one-sixth of people live in arid and semi-arid regions of the world.

The melting of glaciers and icecaps in higher temperatures causes rise in sea levels, which, leads to the contamination of freshwater estuaries with ocean saltwater. Furthermore, glacial melting (without replenishment) eliminates the supply of freshwater thus impacting hundreds of millions of people in India alone who depend on the glaciers that feed the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers.5

Humanitarian Consequences of Water Insecurity

Water scarcity and agricultural productivity:

Agriculture consumes more than 75% of freshwater resources worldwide, and the percentage is even higher in some sub-Saharan African countries. Food production is already in competition with other sectors (e.g. manufacturing, energy) for water allocations. However, global population numbers continue to rise and in the midst of existent competition for water supplies it will become more difficult to acquire sufficient water supplies for the growing nutritional needs.

Rainwater-dependent agriculture will be especially impacted by climate change-induced drought. In the immediate term, drought is one of the primary causes of food shortages; in vulnerable areas, small changes in precipitation patterns can be catastrophic. In the longer term, persistent drought can cause permanent harm to soil quality, further challenging future agricultural production.

Irrigation-fed agriculture is also affected greatly by climate change. As sea levels rise due to temperature rise and melting glaciers, the freshwater sources are contaminated by saline water. New technologies would need to be developed for plants to become viable in semi-saline water.

Water scarcity as a driver of conflict:

There are 215 rivers and 300 water basins shared by multiple countries. Water scarcity can serve as a driver of conflict when states compete for the control over and consumption of shared water resources. Water scarcity may also drive people to migrate into new areas, where they come into contact with residents who see them as a challenge for limited resources. The resultant tensions can at times escalate into conflict.

Water scarcity and health:

As growing populations continue to strain freshwater supplies and sanitation facilities, safe sources of water will become even scarcer. Forced to rely on contaminated sources – especially in urban areas – people will be at a greater risk of contracting water-borne diseases.

Adapting to a Water Insecure Environment

Conventions and the Role of the United Nations

International agencies have undertaken various strategies in order to overcome growing vulnerabilities to water insecurity. Among these, United Nations agencies have initiated the following relevant programs, most of which are premised on the growing threat of climate change to water security.

  • In 2003, UN-Water was established as a coordinating mechanism to synchronize activities across the UN System relating to freshwater issues. It includes 54 members: 29 agencies from within the UN System and 25 external partners. To supplement its role as a platform for interagency communication, UN-Water conducts programs that include monitoring, reporting, advocacy, capacity building, and data analysis.6
  • On February 6, 2013, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (“Water Convention”) entered into force. This convention sets principles that assign responsibility to all parties to prevent pollution, promote conservation, restore damaged water ecosystems, and implement strict monitoring programs. Given its orientation toward rivers and lakes that straddle boundaries, the convention emphasizes the need to cooperate and share information.7
  • At the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s 2005 session, the Conference of Parties to the Convention adopted the Nairobi Work Programme (NWP) for two primary objectives: to facilitate parties’ understanding of impacts and adaptation to climate change, and to guide their decisions on how to best respond. Partner organizations work through the NWP to implement the program’s goals. These organizations’ activities are described in the NWP’s 2011 report, “Climate Change and Freshwater Resources.”
  • In 2004, UNDP launched the Community Water Initiative (CWI) to fund local projects around the world that aim to promote water security. Funded projects provide water supply and sanitation services, conserve water resources, promote sustainable land management, and build local water governance capacity, among other outcomes.8
  • UNESCO is particularly active in addressing water insecurity. Since 2003, the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education has provided education and conducted research on water related issues. Likewise, the International Hydrological Programme (IHP) serves to provide education, capacity building, policy advice, water resources assessment, water resources management guidance, and facilitation for interagency and international cooperation. The World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP), meanwhile, brings together 26 UN agencies to assess global freshwater resources.9

Roles for Other Actors

Future water consumption will be driven by changes in water supply, changes in water demand, and changes in water management. Diverse actors can influence each of these variables.

  • Government institutions can take an active role by encouraging incentives to efficient water usage, balancing water demands across sectors, implementing watershed protection measures, and developing plans to support rainfall- and irrigation-dependent producers.10
  • Modified techniques and technologies can play a helpful role in community efforts to adapt, too. Scientific input is critical to the development of crops resistant to drought and flooding, activities that protect soil moisture (e.g. zero-tillage), the location and timing of agricultural activities, and more efficient consumption practices.11
  • Likewise, advocates in non-governmental organizations (such as WaterAid, the Global Water Partnership (GWP), and water.org) play useful roles in bringing attention to issues of water security, calling for proactive responses and drawing together the private and public sectors to contribute to joint projects.12
  • Humanitarian operators that function in drought-prone areas should adopt long-term approaches that incorporate early warning, mitigation, and preparedness. Coordination between humanitarian and development programs is necessary. Given the persistence of water insecurity and long-term onset of crises, adaptation and preparation are crucial elements of mitigating emergencies.13
  • Lastly, it is important that donors recognize the utility of early responses to risks as they provide financial support to humanitarian missions. In the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa, for example, one estimate puts the cost of delayed action at 50,000 to 100,000 lives.14

Water security is a complex issue that requires collaboration across countries and actors. Through such initiatives as the UN-Water and the Nairobi Work Program, the UN has played an integral role in drawing together the efforts of institutions and regions. Partnerships across economic development, humanitarian, environmental science, and government institutions can serve to complement these UN efforts by working together to minimize water insecurity.

  1. Bart Schultz, Stefan Uhlenbrook. “Water security: What does it mean, what may it imply?” Discussion draft paper, UNESCO-IHE, 2007.
  2. Points drawn from: UNOCHA Policy Development and Studies Branch, “Water Scarcity and Humanitarian Action: Key Emerging Trends and Challenges.” UNOCHA, September 2010.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 6.
  5. "A Guide to UN Water." UN-Water, February 2012.
  6. “Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes.” Helsinki, March 17, 1992.
  7. “UNDP Community Water Initiative: Foster Water Security and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation.” UNDP/GEF Small Grants Programme, March 2010.
  8. “About IHP.” International Hydrological Programme, UNESCO.
  9. Eva Ludi, “Climate Change, Water, and Food Security.” ODI Background Note, March, 2009.
  10. Ibid.
  11. “Delivering the Strategy.” Global Water Partnership
  12. “Strategic Alliances.” Water.org.
  13. Adan Bika, “Overview of Drought Risk Reduction in the IGAD Region.” In ISDR Informs: Disaster Reduction in Africa (Special Issue on Drought 2012), UNISDR Africa, 2012, p. 11.
  14. "A Dangerous Delay: The Cost of Late Response to Early Warnings in the 2011 Drought in the Horn of Africa.” Save the Children/Oxfam Joint Agency Briefing Paper, January 18, 2012.

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