Main page content

‘Improve climate data’ to tackle water security

This article was originally published on

Water availability and quality will increasingly be impacted by climate change, putting vulnerable communities at risk, unless steps are taken now to build resilience, researchers warn.

Improving access to local climate information and measuring the impact of weather on water supply is essential for advancing water security as global temperatures rise, according to The Water Security for Climate Resilience Report, released this month by the University of Oxford-led REACH research programme.

It says that while the effect of climate on droughts and floods is well-known, the impacts on lives and livelihoods at community level are often bypassed.

Lead report author, Katrina Charles, a professor and senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and co-director of REACH, tells SciDev.Net, that the researchers worked on understanding “how we can improve water security for everyone, including the most vulnerable people”.

“Improving water security will help to mitigate the impacts of climate change,” she said, adding: “Without it, people will be very vulnerable to water scarcity, to changes in water quality, to flooding.

“[The research] has helped us to understand […] not just the impacts of major events like floods and droughts, but the much more complex impacts of the changes in weather on people’s lives.”

The report cites the example of Bangladesh, where more extreme weather will lead to worsening water quality, with impacts on people’s health as heavy rainfall increases contamination in drinking water. In drier periods, there is less dilution of industrial wastewater in rivers, also exposing people to dangerous concentrations of heavy metals.

Charles says that climate change is already altering the water cycle, changing the availability, reliability and quality of water available for drinking, agriculture, industry and the environment.

“The impact of climate change on water systems will continue to increase, threatening people’s lives and their quality of life, threatening the economic productivity of countries,” she added. “We need to act now to improve water security to help improve climate resilience.”

The research comes as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in a landmark report this week that extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods and droughts are becoming more frequent and more intense.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF also warned recently that the UN Sustainable Development Goal six, for universal access to clean water and sanitation by 2030, will be missed unless the rate of progess quadruples.

Data-backed decisions

The REACH report stresses that climate and water risks are experienced unequally, with complex physical, political, social, behavioural and environmental mechanisms influencing the water security of both urban and rural communities.

Researchers say that although “water institutions are working towards climate resilience to manage risks from climate shocks and variability […] more needs to be done to integrate climate resilience into water policy and practice.”

Authors recommend that more granular, or local, climate risk analysis is carried out to ensure data is relevant to specific communities. And they suggest improving metrics for monitoring climate resilience to track progress and inform investment decisions.

New institutional models are also needed to improve water security and facilitate climate-resilient decisions, they say.

Derek Vollmer, senior director of freshwater science, at Conservation International, says the report is important because of its emphasis on the local nature of water security issues.

“The report’s [three] main recommendations are a good start,” he said. “Each of these implies longer-term thinking and investments, but with the aim to build lasting local capacity.

“Climate change is introducing more uncertainty into our water systems. Local and regional decision makers will need to be equipped with both the information and the tools to explore adaptation measures, and to have a supportive policy environment that gives them the flexibility to manage their resources for resilience.”

The link between climate change and water security is becoming increasingly clear, according to Vollmer. But he added: “As the authors emphasise, these impacts will be different across locations, seasons, and even sub-populations within a specific place.

“Investing resources into more accurate regional climate models is necessary to provide robust forecasts for precipitation and streamflow, which are building blocks in resilience planning.”