COP22: Impact of Water Scarcity

As a master’s student studying Sustainable Development I am continually learning about potential resolutions to climate change, global poverty, business ethics and trade practices. However, despite all of this, there is one question running through my mind at night, keeping me awake:

                   What impact will water scarcity have on the future of our planet?

I was encouraged to learn that a historical moment was reached at the 22nd Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Agreement on Climate Change (COP). Where, for the first time, a spotlight was shone on implementing actions for global water issues with, Water Action Day.

With the world’s population increasing exponentially, and the World Bank projecting figures of 8.5 billion people by 20301, the resulting strain on fresh water as a resource for human health, energy production, food production, industry and agriculture is extreme. With 97% of the world’s water being held as saline in the oceans there is only 3% available as fresh water, it is imperative to protect water to maintain the security of all of these processes. Water is an under-priced commodity around the industrialised world, people and businesses do not value it in the same way they do oil or energy, resulting in a less prominent position. As Aristotle said, “What is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it”

According to the World Health Organisation, “over 1 billion people globally lack access to safe drinking-water, 2.6 billion lack adequate sanitation; diseases related to unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene result in an estimated 1.7 million deaths every year”2 There is a growing recognition today, mainly expressed by NGOs, that countries and businesses are acting with short term financial interests as their goal and paying lip-service to the long-term consequences on the environment and water conservation. In effect, a disregard to their impacts which are generating water challenges. The economic theory, tragedy of the commons, helps to identify how the earth is reaching a tipping point for water scarcity; when no one individual, business or association has entitlements to a resource, it leads to over exploitation because preservation is not in the user’s interests.
Deaths from unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene


Source: World Health Organisation 3

Africa, as can be seen in the ‘Deaths from unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene’ graph has an average of 500-1050 death per million resulting from polluted water due to agriculture, industrial processes, mining and urbanisation. Deforestation, an example of tragedy of the commons, does not only negatively impact trees, but the forests entire micro-climate, resulting in a range of negative consequences. Forests initiate a hydraulic cycle, allowing evaporation and transpiration of water into and from the atmosphere. Through deforestation this cycle is lost, causing the ground to flood and through degradation of the soil contaminate water supplies, making it unfit for human consumption. Soil degradation results in a vicious cycle of major seasonal flooding, further exacerbating soil erosion with consequential deaths, reduced land fertility and loss of properties.

As an outcome of COP22, three water action recommendations were set4:

  1. Harmonising water and climate policies
  2. Extending water access and sanitation services in Africa
  3. Reinforcing resilient water governance promoting inclusive and integrated water resources management.

Water and climate change are inextricably linked, as a lot of the technologies required to tackle climate change require an accessible source of water. By harmonising water and climate policies, it will help to streamline the whole environmental system. In addition, by increasing water conservation this will reduce the need for infrastructure to be erected for expensive desalination facilities across the world. In order to extend water access in Africa, water governance for issues such as deforestation and urbanisation will require tackling at the source of the issue. Consequently, resulting in a larger impact on the economy of the country through the reduction of money necessary to be spent on health care for water pollution related illnesses

Water is a resource which has no boarders, 260 international rivers and transboundary aquifers5 across the globe, water flows through rivers and oceans connecting every person in the world. It should be seen as a reason for global cooperation and not conflicts, but currently the risk is the opposite.

To help me sleep soundly at night once again, it is up to us, civil society, to put pressure on governments to regulate industrial use of water with effective enforcement and monitoring, and to ensure the implementation of Water Action Recommendations are carried out.

In short, taking the lessons that have been learned from a lack of adoption of the Kyoto protocol, and providing incentives to all countries involved for the implementation of climate initiatives agreed upon in the Paris and Morocco Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Agreement on Climate Change. I believe the new Carbon Disclosue Project (CDP) report which revealed that “water risks fuelled by climate change cost the private sector $14bn (£11.3bn) over the last year”, is a large incentive to enforce change6.

Paris agreed plan ⇒Marrakech prepare the roadmap ⇒ Review implementation

There is a long way to go before the water scarcity problems are solved across the globe, however collaborative projects such as COP22 and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for sustainable management of water and sanitation, are a huge step in the direction of water conservation for all.



1 UN, Poverty (July 29th, 2015) “UN projects world population to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, driven by growth in developing countries” In Retrieved 27 November 2016

2The state of the environment; freshwater. GEO-2000: Global Environment Outlook. Nairobi, United Nations Environment Programme, 1999.

3 WHO (2016) “Water, Health and Ecosystems” in WHO . Retrieved 27 November 2016

4Ogleby, George  (November 18th 2016) “An unstoppable force: Seven things we learned from the COP22 climate talks” Retrieved 27 November 2016

5  UN, News Centre (22nd, November 2016) “UN projects world population to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, driven by growth in developing countries” In Retrieved 27 November 2016

6 Ogleby, George  (November 18th 2016) “An unstoppable force: Seven things we learned from the COP22 climate talks” Retrieved 27 November 2016

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