UN conference hears litany of water disasters linked to climate crisis

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Leonardo Muñoz/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Leonardo Muñoz/AFP/Getty Images

Water is at the heart of the climate crisis, with an increasingly dire carousel of droughts, floods and sea level rise felt “making our planet uninhabitable” the secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, has warned.

On the second day of the first UN water conference in almost half a century, countries lined up to describe how they are suffering from water disasters linked to human-made global heating. “We seem to either have too much water, or too little,” said Senzo Mchunu, South Africa’s water minister. “We will fail on climate change if we fail on water.”

Related: Global fresh water demand will outstrip supply by 40% by 2030, say experts

Last year more than 40,000 people, half of them children, died from drought in Somalia while a third of Pakistan was inundated after catastrophic floods. Agricultural yields have fallen sharply in parts of Europe and China after a string of drought years, and last month Cyclone Freddy brought catastrophic floods to southern Africa.

“Humanity faces a difficult truth – climate change is making our planet uninhabitable,” said Guterres on Thursday. “As countries hurtle past the 1.5C limit (2.7F), climate change is intensifying heatwaves, droughts, flooding, wildfires and famines, while threatening to submerge low-lying countries and cities and drive more species to extinction.”

On Thursday, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which holds the presidency for Cop28, came under pressure to put water front and centre of the UN climate talks to be held in Dubai in November. About 90% of climate impacts are related to water – too much, too little or too polluted – yet currently only 3% of climate finance is dedicated to water resources.

Advocates, NGOs and ministers from the Netherlands, Finland, France, Tajikistan and Egypt urged the UAE to formally include water in the four negotiating tracks – mitigation, adaptation, finance and loss and damage. “Cop28 needs to keep water high on the agenda, it should be part of climate adaptation and mitigation and this conference must feed into the global stocktake,” said Johanna Sumuvuori, Finland’s deputy foreign minister.

Last year Egypt broke ground by making water a thematic day, and water was also included in the cover decision – the final binding actions and pledges agreed on by all countries. Cop28 will be centred around the global stocktake or inventory of how countries are collectively progressing towards meeting the goals of the Paris agreement – and where they are not.

“The global stocktake will be the moment of truth … although we already know we’re not where we need to be, the response will be an opportunity for course correction and water has to be a key element of that roadmap,” said Simon Stiell, executive director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. “We need to work for water and water needs to work for the climate.”

Half of the world’s population already endures severe water scarcity for at least some part of the year, according to the latest IPCC report. The situation is forecast to get much worse, but water resources such as healthy wetlands and peatlands can help mitigate greenhouse emissions, while cutting fossil fuels and industrial farming would slash water consumption as well as greenhouse gases.

Indigenous communities can help – if the world is willing to listen, according to Hindou Ibrahim, a member of the Indigenous Peoples Forum. “Our traditional knowledge about forests and grasses can protect water in the cities, but that means recognising our rights to land and territory and by really including us in the process … The global stocktake must start here by recognising that water is a human right and recognising Indigenous people as the solution.”

About 6,700 delegates are attending the three-day event in New York, which is the first UN conference on water for 46 years – and only the second ever. Water has long been sidelined in international negotiations, despite its key role in climate, food and national security.

The conference is expected to culminate on Friday in the Water Action Agenda – a non-binding collection of commitments that advocates hope will snowball into binding agreements at Cop28. Despite what’s at stake, there have been few concrete financial pledges, few world leaders and no protesters to call out government and private sector hypocrisies.

Delegates listen to Turkey’s agriculture and forestry minister, Vahit Kirisci, during the water conference at UN general assembly in New York on Thursday.
Delegates listen to Turkey’s agriculture and forestry minister, Vahit Kirisci, during the water conference at the UN general assembly on Thursday. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Global heating adds moisture in the atmosphere, causing increasingly intense torrential downpours and prolonging droughts. It’s also causing sea levels to rise, threatening coastal areas with inundation, while storm surge can cause contamination of drinking water supplies. The growing threat is felt worst by the poorest countries, but communities across the world have been hit by whiplash-inducing extremes, including California which has been racked by a two-decade “megadrought”, only to suffer from deadly floods in recent weeks.

A key UN goal is for all countries to have access to disaster early warning systems within the next five years, but there are still “major gaps in the observing systems” able to deliver this, according to Petteri Taalas, head of the World Meteorological Organization. “We need to find the resources to make this a success story.”

Resiliency measures and climate adaptation are also woefully underfunded.

“The main impact of the climate crisis is through the water cycle,” said Charles Iceland, global water director at the World Resources Institute. “The water is either too much, too little or too dirty. In the water world we’ve been saying for some time now that climate change is the shark but that water is its teeth.”

Iceland said that even wealthy countries such as the US and Australia are struggling to deal with the changing reality of water, meaning that poorer countries will probably have to spend even more of their scarce resources on coping with the growing threat. “There’s no easy fix, it’s going to take a portfolio of actions,” he said. “It’s going to be almost impossible to pay for all of the damages that are coming.”