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UN Climate Change: Water at the Heart of Climate Action


This year’s World Water Week – 23 to 27 August – is a timely opportunity to focus on the critical link between water and climate change. Water is at the centre of the challenges facing the international community as a result of changing weather patterns caused by the climate crisis.

The alteration of the water cycle as a result of the warming climate will not only affect the quality and quantity of water for basic human needs, but will also pose risks for energy production, food security, human health, economic development and poverty reduction, thus undermining the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. To what extent this can have spectacularly dire effects is underscored by a warning issued by 13 relief agencies this week that more than 12 million people in Syria and Iraq are losing access to water and food as the result of global heating.

Climate change means too much water or too little

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released earlier this month concluded that climate change is unequivocal and is leading to the extreme weather events we have observed in recent years. These include the simultaneous occurrence of intense heatwaves and droughts in some regions, along with heavy rains and flooding in others, both with unprecedented severity.

The physical science on climate change is clear. As temperatures rise, very dry and wet weather will occur more frequently, along with other severe climate events. Higher temperatures and more extreme, less predictable, weather conditions will affect the availability and distribution of rainfall, snowmelt, river flows and groundwater, and further deteriorate water quality. Low-income communities, who are already the most vulnerable to any threats to water supply, are likely to be worst affected.

Climate change is projected to increase the number of water-stressed regions and exacerbate shortages in already water-stressed regions. According to UN Water, over a fifth of the world’s basins have recently experienced either rapid increases in their surface water area indicative of flooding; a growth in reservoirs and newly inundated land; or rapid declines in surface water area indicating the drying up of lakes, reservoirs and wetlands.

Across the globe, drylands are expected to expand significantly, and the accelerated melting of glaciers is expected to have a negative effect on the water resources of mountain regions and their adjacent lowlands.

Just as water scarcity and failed crops are leading to loss of livelihoods and forced migration in some areas, excessive rains and flooding are causing huge material and human losses elsewhere.

The IPCC’s report concludes that climate change and its impacts will continue to worsen over the coming years unless the international community takes immediate, decisive action against global warming.

The upcoming UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow is the next major opportunity for collective global action to avert the risk of vicious cycles that could fuel even higher temperatures and a potential loss of ecosystems beyond control.

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