Climate talks
Future climate negotiations can’t just ignore increasing water insecurity as they will be counterproductive Image Credit: Gulf News

Besides large-scale human migration, any other impact of global climate change, which can create wars between countries, is insecurity over freshwater availability. Despite this, the global water crisis was rarely mentioned and discussed at the just concluded World Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.

The COP26 has resulted in a ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ keeping the ambition of 1.5C alive, but the compromised text, particularly the last-minute change to the wording on coal, has disappointed many.

The negotiation continues year after year under the auspices of COP on the climate fund, carbon credit, loss and damage, and all these talks often end up in a deadlock or a dodge. Very rarely does anyone worthwhile point finger who or what causes climate change, how climate change has created a survival threat for the planet, and how it is happening much faster than previously anticipated.

Moreover, how climate change impacts affecting the availability of precious and scarce resources like water. But, the focus has always been energy transition. However, the effects of climate change on the planet have been primarily through the water.

More by Prof Ashok Swain

The world is no doubt experiencing a severe global water crisis. More than 40 % of the population worldwide is suffering from water scarcity, and by 2050 an additional 2.3 billion people in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are expected to be living in severe water stress. Globally, a quarter of all cities are facing severe water scarcity. The UN Environment Program has already counted the water crisis as one of the top global risks for the coming decade.

The origins of this water crisis are not limited to climate factors alone. However, climate change is seriously aggravating the water scarcity problem globally and regionally. Increasing warmer climate intensifies evaporation, changes rainfall and snowfall patterns and multiplies melting of glaciers.

The most profound impact of climate change has been on the water cycle. As the recently released IPCC report says, global warming intensifies the global water cycle, including its variability, global monsoon precipitation, and the severity of wet and dry events.

Climate impacts result in too little water, too much water, and too polluted water. Due to the greenhouse effect, the increase in global surface temperatures is enlarging the “atmospheric water-holding capacity” and changing precipitation patterns in intensity, frequency, and duration. This results in floods and droughts being more frequent.

Water-related natural hazards have increased in the past two decades. The number of floods has increased 134% since 2000, compared to the previous two decades.

Damages to human life and the economy

While Asia has suffered more due to flood-related damages to human life and the economy, Africa has endured more drought-related deaths and economic losses. The Middle East and North Africa region has been experiencing drought continuously since 1998, and as per Nasa, the most severe dry spell in 900 years.

Water pollution has become a serious problem globally, and climate change is making this situation worse. Water pollution and climate change are interlinked as well. Increased water temperature and extreme storm events adversely affect water quality. While decreasing water in the water systems due to climate change leads to more pollution, polluted water releases more greenhouse gases.

A World Bank report says that the water scarcity worsened by climate change can potentially limit the economic growth of some regions up to 6%, force people to migrate, and even trigger conflict.

Countries can face water scarcity in regions like Central Africa and East Asia, where the water supply has usually been abundant. The situation will worsen further in water-scarce regions like the Sahel and the Middle East. Water insecurity and food price increase can cause more societal conflicts and political instability.

Water scarcity exacerbated by climate change can cause more urban riots or ethnic conflicts within countries, but it can also spur water wars. True that the world is yet to witness a water war, but that possibility can’t be written off as climate change has created huge variation and unprecedented uncertainty in water availability and demand in shared water systems.

Sixty per cent of all freshwaters come from 310 internationally shared river basins and an estimated 592 transboundary aquifers. The climate-change-induced variations in these freshwater systems are fundamental to countries feeling insecure over their water supplies. They are likely to affect the volume and timing of river flows and groundwater recharge.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation, in 2020, more than 20% of the world’s river basins experienced either rapid increases or declines in their surface water area. Rapid changes in water flow in the shared river systems contribute to increased risks of natural disasters like floods and drought, breaking down existing water-sharing arrangements and enhancing the dangers of escalation of water-sharing conflicts between countries.

The impact of climate change on precious water resources has a tremendous effect on the health and livelihood of societies and poses challenges to human, national, regional, and global security.

While climate change may not solely cause a water war, it exacerbates these threats in different parts of the world, particularly in water-scarce regions like Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Increasing conflict over water will be seriously damaging to efficient water management and mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Climate crisis and water crisis are two sides of the same coin. Thus, future climate negotiations can’t just ignore increasing water insecurity as they will be counterproductive. The governments negotiating climate change mitigation and adaptation must take urgent and decisive action on greenhouse gas emissions and energy transition.

Also, equally important in providing financial and technical support for developing countries to adapt to the water insecurity situation that is already causing havoc. Hopefully, good sense will prevail in the COP27, scheduled to be at Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022.