Transforming Water Access: How the “World’s Lifeblood” is Under Attack

March 21, 2023 By Jack Berson

On March 22, business, non-profit, and public sector stakeholders will travel to New York for the first official United Nations Water Conference in nearly 50 years, marking a critical moment for global water policy when the world is confronting compounding and historic humanitarian crises. Today, after years of poor management and misuse, less than 3 percent of the world’s water resources are freshwater and some 2 billion people – 25 percent of the world’s population – live in countries where water supply is inadequate.

With the global demand for water growing in the face of the worst global food crisis in modern history and a once in a generation global health threat, half of the world’s population could be living in areas facing water scarcity by 2025, raising the importance of representatives at the UN Water Conference to renew their commitment to scaling up ambitious policies aimed at transforming access to what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres calls the “world’s lifeblood.”

Given the overwhelming burden of water insecurity on low-income populations most threatened by climate change, advocates suggest that policies and strategies discussed in New York should focus on climate resilience, local capacity development, and early-warning monitoring systems. This ensures that the most vulnerable communities are prepared to balance the short-term need for water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) – for cooking, bathing, and drinking – with the long-term demand to transform how we manage and utilize water in a more sustainable and inclusive way.

As climate change disrupts weather patterns and extreme weather events become more common – from droughts to floods to damaging winds – water availability becomes more unpredictable, exacerbating scarcity, state fragility, and potentially contaminating water with dangerous diseases. While the nexus between national security, climate change, and water security is complex, their overlap can be most clearly seen in 1) food security and agriculture; 2) global health threats and the spread of disease; and 3) conflict and displacement.

Food Security and Agriculture

Clean water and consistent access to nutritious food are essential for human health, though climate change is increasingly putting these fundamental resources at risk. Rainfed agriculture supports 60 percent of global food production, meaning that smallholder farmers – which represent between 70 and 80 percent of the world’s farmland – rely on consistent water access to feed the world. Without reliable WASH, farmers see significant decreases in crop and livestock productivity, and in turn, food security.

A recent study using data collected by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests that populations faced with problems accessing water were three times more likely to face food insecurity compared to those that did not face similar problems. More so, the study found that two-thirds of people who were water insecure in 2020 were also experiencing food insecurity concurrently, and this has implications for economic growth.

For example, in the Middle East, researchers found that a 20 percent reduction in water supply – often leading to smaller harvests – due to climate change could decrease GDP by up to 10 percent in the region and reduce labor demand by up to 12 percent. With more time spent traveling to collect water, less time can be dedicated to generating an income or preparing food at home.

In the next three decades, water scarcity is expected to increase in more than 80 percent of the world’s croplands, potentially leading to decreased yields. In part, this is why China invests more than $50 billion per year in its “water trade,” heavily importing soybeans instead of farming them domestically, considering they are one of the world’s most water-intensive crops.

Today, China is the world’s largest importer of soybeans, partly due to its fear of running out of water at home. This has generated a lucrative $16 billion export market for U.S. businesses. In China’s north, where soybeans were traditionally grown, the government is facing a significant water challenge, with soybeans at the center. By importing the majority of the world’s soybeans, China is effectively importing or “trading” for a significant portion of its water needs, a result of the country’s growing water crises that has left 80 to 90 percent of groundwater unfit for drinking and half of its aquifers too polluted for farming. Simply put, agriculture, and therefore food security, cannot exist without water.

Global Health 

Globally, nearly 1.5 billion people – including 450 million children – live in areas of high or extremely high water vulnerability, according to UNICEF. In the Horn of Africa, drought last year, which is resulting in a likely and historic sixth failed rainy season, doubled the number of children suffering from severe thirst, hunger, and disease to more than 20 million.

With 40 percent of schools worldwide lacking adequate supplies for students to wash their hands, the world’s youth are incredibly vulnerable to water-related diseases both in and out of their homes. Globally, WASH-related diseases are one of the leading causes of death for children under the age of five, with over 800 children in this age group dying each day from diseases linked to poor water sanitation and hygiene. And in healthcare, overall, 47 percent of facilities in Least Developed Countries lack basic water services. Where water is not easily accessible, proper handwashing may not be a priority – or even possible – adding to the spread of diseases.

More so, limited access to safe water for drinking and basic hygiene at home and in communities contributes to high rates of preventable diseases. The current drought in Eastern Africa has catalyzed the spread of infectious diseases throughout the region, such as cholera, which is largely transmitted through contaminated water in areas with poor access to sanitation services. Without water, sewage systems may fail and the threat of contracting diseases escalates. This often disproportionately affects women and children who are usually responsible for collecting water in low-income countries. Even worse, in conflict-settings, children under five are up to 20 times more likely to die from diseases linked to unsafe water and sanitation than from direct violence.

Similar to the relationship between climate change and nutrition, water scarcity worsens the nutritional quality of one’s diet. Families that lack access to water may be forced to move away from healthier foods like grains, and instead purchase high-calorie, less nutrient-dense processed foods that do not require water to cook. In Kenya, studies found that households had sufficient food but were unable to prepare it because of lack of water, and in South Africa, women reported that water scarcity limited their ability to cook. Consequently, in 2019, one-third of the world’s nearly 700 million children under the age of five were either undernourished or overweight due in part to the effect of water scarcity on diet quality.

Broadly, water insecurity can strain health systems due to an influx in the spread of diseases, and as these resources become more obsolete, conflict and displacement may surge.

Conflict and Displacement

A country’s ability to effectively manage its water resources has profound implications for its economic and political stability. As water resources become scarcer, competition intensifies between countries and within communities. This raises the likelihood of conflict and exacerbates existing political or societal tensions that generate fragility within communities and across borders, in turn, undermining U.S. national security. According to the recently launched U.S. Global Water Strategy, in fragile settings, people are eight times more likely to lack access to safe water.

During the past year, 1.7 million people have been internally displaced within Ethiopia and Somalia and more than 180,000 refugees from Somalia and South Sudan have migrated to neighboring countries due to severe drought. As they migrate, however, competition for limited water follows, exacerbating ongoing conflict in the region and making it more difficult for organizations to manage humanitarian aid. Historically, violent conflict as well as political and economic instability have been the primary drivers of migration. Yet as climate change continues to worsen tensions over limited resources, a “vicious cycle of water and food insecurity and fragility” persists.

In 1995, former World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin shared a sobering message foreshadowing today’s crisis: “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water – unless we change our approach to managing this precious and vital resource.”

Though “water wars” have yet to materialize, water-related conflicts around the world – from Iran to Pakistan to China to right here in the United States – continue to fuel disputes among states, communities, and national governments. In Africa, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) sits at the center of a regional dispute for water, and in South Asia, a territorial clash over the Siachen Glacier, as well as an outdated and increasingly dysfunctional water-sharing pact, is escalating tensions between India and Pakistan.

Regardless of the drivers of water-related conflict, buy-in at the local, national, and international level is much needed to strengthen global stability – and stability here at home – in the face of growing humanitarian crises that will only worsen water scarcity.

U.S. Leadership at Home and Abroad

For the first time last year, the White House Action Plan on Global Water Security, which was operationalized by the 2022 U.S. Global Water Strategy, directly linked water security to U.S. national security, writing that “Water stress contributes to regional instability, drives mass migration, and can lead to broader conflict.” Though long overdue, this recognition is critical to protecting our national security and economic interests at home, given the United Nations estimates that water scarcity could displace millions of people in the coming decades – straining economic resources, food and health systems, and raising the risk of violence around the world.

While this recognition by the Administration is encouraging, much more work needs to be done at home and abroad to protect water security, and in turn, national security. Thankfully, U.S. citizens and our development and diplomacy agencies are leading the way.

Texas A&M’s Innovation Lab for Small Scale Irrigation (ILSSI) – supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development – is leading America’s efforts at home to improve access to water and strengthen water management practices abroad. From Ethiopia and Ghana to Mali and Tanzania, Texas A&M’s ILSSI is supporting the more than 6.5 million smallholder farmers that could directly benefit from expanding small scale irrigation.

Looking Ahead

Looking forward, the 2023 UN Water Conference, which is co-hosted by the Netherlands and Tajikistan, offers an opportunity for the United States and its international partners to show how seriously they are taking the effects of water scarcity on cross-cutting crises, including food insecurity, global health, and conflict. “We need a Paris-moment for Water… we need to act decisively before it’s too late” said Yoko Brandt, the Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the UN

While major policy agreements or funding commitments are to be determined, a successful conference “must also be cross-sectoral, mobilizing all other sectors to improve the way they manage and utilize water resources” including “strong participation from the global South and across stakeholder groups such as women, youth and indigenous groups,” according to Jonibek Hikmat, the Permanent Representative of Tajikistan to the UN.

As we mark the midway point of the 2018-2028 Water Action Decade, a greater focus on international cooperation and investment to strengthen water resilience is emerging. Regardless of whether water agreements are announced at the upcoming conference, the elevation of water security to a multinational forum signals that the time to act is now. Whether or not future UN Water Conferences will generate ambitious outcomes akin to today’s UN Climate Change Conferences (COP), March 22 could be the beginning of a more concerted effort to ensure that WASH has the consistent political leadership around the world needed to improve water access for vulnerable communities.