by Lovleen Bhullar 

Water security is concerned with availability of adequate quantity and quality of water for different uses and users.  We need water for domestic (e.g. drinking, cooking, bathing, washing) and non-domestic (e.g. food and electricity production, industry, navigation) uses.  Water also maintains and restores natural ecosystems.  Some definitions of water security are narrow and focus on human beings exclusively - only individuals or both individuals and communities, the public and the private sector.  Other definitions recognise the relationship between human and natural systems and include the natural environment as well.  The spatial and temporal dimensions of water (in)security is intricately linked with principles of inter-generational and intra-generational equity.  This means, among other things, that water security requires water to be stored e.g., in aquifers, glaciers, and ice sheets to ensure availability not only in the short-term but also the medium- and long-term for people living in different countries and regions within countries, and experiencing different socio-economic and cultural realities, in the present and future generations. 

Water insecurity – the converse of water security - will result in conflict between different uses and users of different sources of water at different levels – from the local to the national to the global.  This should not be equated with the spectre of ‘water wars’ between states but it is no less frightening.   It is also important to remember that water insecurity is not an issue we might have to contend with in the future; it is the reality right here, right now.  Water security is directly related to food security.  According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, approximately half of global grain production will be at risk due to water stress by 2050 if business-as-usual persists.  

The relationship between climate change and water security 

Climate change is likely to exacerbate water insecurity and conflict among different uses and users of water.  The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that water resourceswould experience 93 per cent of the impacts of climate change.  More recently, the UN World Water Development Report 2020 noted that climate change increases the vulnerability of freshwater resources i.e., any naturally occurring water except seawater and brackish water.  The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, which is expected in September 2021, will provide an update on the impact of climate change on water resources.  

Rising temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns, and more extreme, less predictable, weather events are likely to lead to adversely affect water resources in the following ways, among others: 

  • Boost evaporation
  • Snow falls as rain
  • Melting of glaciers, ice sheets, snow
  • Frequency and magnitude of floods and droughts
  • Wildfires
  • Availability of surface water and groundwater 

Heavy rainfall and breakdown of water treatment infrastructure during floods and extreme weather events can increase sediment and pollution loads in water sources.  This will affect the quality of raw water and drinking water. 

The IPCC identifies a direct correlation between the increase in concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) and the adverse impacts of climate change on freshwater resources. Climate change mitigation measures to reduce GHG emissions could promote water security. Alternatively, mitigation measures could exacerbate water insecurity.  Water is required to implement climate change mitigation measures e.g., generation of renewable energy (hydropower, geothermal) as an alternative to fossil fuel use and carbon sequestration in sinks through reforestation, bioenergy production and carbon capture and storage.  

Climate change adaptation measures could also contribute to water security.  Such measures include water retention by forests, wetland, and artificial storage facilities, soil improvement and water management in rain-fed agriculture, and flood protection measures.  However, climate change adaptation measures in other sectors such as expansion of irrigation farming may affect the availability, quantity and quality of water resources.  Improvements in water management could promote climate resilience without being labelled as climate change adaptation measures.  Alternatively, water mismanagement could impede mitigation and adaptation to climate change.  

Water (security) in the international climate change regime 

The international climate change regime includes the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and the 2015 Paris Agreement.  The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development's 17 Sustainable Development Goals includes a specific one on climate action.  

The UNFCCC explicitly acknowledges the relationship between climate change and water.  It recognises that low-lying and other small island countries, countries with low-lying coastal, arid and semi-arid areas or areas liable to floods, drought and desertification, and developing countries with fragile mountainous ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to climate change.  In fact, all parties accepted a commitment to cooperate to ‘develop and elaborate appropriate and integrated plans for coastal zone management, water resources and agriculture, and for the protection and rehabilitation of areas, particularly in Africa, affected by drought and desertification, as well as floods.’ 

Like the UNFCCC, the Paris Agreement recognises that certain countries are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.  Unlike the UNFCCC, it does not specify the countries or include any reference to floods, droughts, and desertification.  The Paris Agreement does not mention water at all, but water is implicitly embedded in several provisions.  The Agreement aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change through mitigation and adaptation measures.  Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) specify the mitigation and adaptation measures that parties to the Paris Agreement commit to undertake to achieve this objective.  93 per cent of Intended NDCs submitted by countries in 2015 identify water as a central component of their adaptation efforts.  Some INDCs link water to the provision of sustainable energy, which is a key climate change mitigation measure e.g., through construction of dams for hydropower generation.  Further, the preamble of the Agreement recognises the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security, which is inextricably linked to water security and energy security.  The preamble also states that parties to the Agreement should respect, promote, and consider their obligations on human rights.  This presents another opportunity to acknowledge the link between climate change and water security, which implicates the right to water as well as the rights to environment and sanitation, and to undertake necessary measures to ensure complementarity between climate change mitigation and adaptation measures and water security at different levels.  In any case, the Paris Agreement is intended to enhance the implementation of the UNFCCC, which includes a specific commitment with respect to water.  This leaves the door open for consideration of the relationship between climate change and water.   

Non-binding outcomes of governmental and non-governmental processes can also influence the international climate change regime.  Here we are witnessing greater engagement with the relationship between climate change and water.  Even before the Paris Agreement was signed, the Paris Pact on Water and Adaptation – Strengthening Adaptation to Climate Change in the Basins of Rivers, Lakes and Aquifers was entered into at the 21st session of the Conference of Parties of the UNFCCC (COP-21) in Paris in 2015.  It represents a commitment to strengthening climate change adaptation through a joint, participative, integrated, and sustainable water resources management.  The following year, for the very first time, a dedicated water action day (action day for water) was included in the Global Climate Action Agenda during COP-22 in Marrakech.  It called for more attention to water as a way of providing solutions to help implement the Paris Agreement.  Water action events have now become an annual feature (2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020).  

Another relevant outcome from COP-22 is the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action, which enables collaboration between governments and the key stakeholders such as cities, regions, businesses, and investors.  In 2019, the Marrakech Partnership launched Climate Action Pathways to outline the longer-term sectoral visions for a 1.5° climate resilient world in 2050 from the perspective of non-State stakeholders and set out actions needed to achieve that future.  The Water Climate Action Pathway seeks to identify and accelerate action on water-related solutions on climate change mitigation and resilience.  Other partnerships focus on  geographical areas or stakeholders and include the Megacities Alliance for Water and Climate and the Business Alliance for Water and Climate

Addressing climate change, ensuring water security 

The relationship between climate change and water security is complex.  As we inch towards COP-26 in Glasgow later this year, any future roadmap to address climate change must consider the following suggestions: 

(i)            Climate change causes or exacerbates water insecurity by compromising the availability, quantity and quality of different sources of water for human and non-human uses at the global, regional, national, and sub-national levels.  The international climate change regime must explicitly consider the relationship between climate change and the hydrological cycle as well as the multi-scalar dimensions of both.  At the same time, the regime must be guided by the differentiation principle.  Water insecurity and vulnerability to climate change go together for some countries. These countries also fare poorly on the human development index. 

(ii)           The international climate change regime implicitly recognises the importance of water in achieving mitigation and adaptation goals.  This is evident from a perusal of NDCs.  However, the discretion vested in the parties to the Paris Agreement as they implement this bottom-up approach could be steered towards ensuring that they consider the reciprocal relationship between climate change mitigation and adaptation measures on one hand, and water resources and water security on the other. 

(iii)          Climate change adaptation measures might protect water resources explicitly and promote water security implicitly.  However, the international climate change regime adopts an exclusive or predominantly climate lens.  The fact that several mitigation and adaptation measures require water as an input might amplify the threat of water insecurity for individuals and communities receives less attention.  We need a more nuanced approach that recognises that solutions to one problem might create another problem.  Climate change mitigation and adaptation measures might result in water insecurity.  

(iv)          Climate change mitigation and adaptation measures do not always operate in isolation from one another.  Complementarities are welcome but we cannot rule out the potential for water resource conflicts between adaptation and mitigation with implications for water security at different scales and during different time-periods.  To the extent possible, a simultaneous evaluation of these measures is necessary while recognising that there is no hierarchy between the two.  

(v)           The international climate change regime must facilitate the engagement of civil society organisations in discussions on climate change and water.  It must also expand the pool of stakeholders to ensure that voices of concerned individuals and communities and of experts (scientists) from different countries are heard and included in the decision-making processes. 

(vi)          Decision-makers must recognise and explore the synergies between the international climate change regime and international law relating to biodiversity, human rights, watercourses, and wetlands, among others.  They must also acknowledge and fill gaps in international law e.g., concerning aquifers and polar ice that impede the development and operationalization of a comprehensive approach to address climate change while ensuring water security.