Amina Shahzadi, Green Blogger

The beginning of life on Earth has been linked to water. Modern humans (Homo sapiens) have inhabited this planet for some 300,000 years, most of that time as hunter-gatherers. Some years ago, when people increasingly adopted an agrarian way of life, humans started establishing permanent settlements. All of the early civilizations were established close to large water bodies – rivers, lakes, and sea. Therefore, water is life. Water underpins nearly everything we do: agriculture, industries, energy production, recreation, drinking, cooking, and hygiene. It is also the foundation of every ecosystem on the planet.

How much water do we have, and can we access it?

The oceans hold about 97.5 percent of the Earth’s water resources as saline water. Therefore, only 2.5 percent of all the water on the planet is fresh, making it a relatively limited resource. Furthermore, of this freshwater, around 68.7 percent is frozen as glaciers and ice caps. And 30.1 percent is difficult to access as it is stored below the surface as groundwater. The hydrological cycle consists of flows of water between various stores.

Water availability calculations are based on the water resources available per spatial unit (e.g. basin or country) and time (daily, monthly, seasonal, annual, or even longer time scales). The mismatch between water availability and demand leads to water scarcity issues and adds stress to societies. There are wide variations in water availability vs. demand between the different regions worldwide.

Water and food systems – intrinsically linked

Agriculture is the largest water user, responsible for about 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals, most of which is used for irrigation. More than 820 million people have insufficient food, and many more consume an unhealthy diet that contributes to obesity, premature death, and diseases. At the same time, global food production severely impacts climate stability and ecosystem integrity and constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation, climate change, and the stability of the Earth system.

Agricultural systems are dependent both on hydrology and on related institutions. Sustainable, efficient, and affordable water management is key to the transformation of the global food and agricultural systems. There is no agriculture without water. Thus sustainable water management is foundational for producing more food with fewer resources – referred to as sustainable agricultural intensification.

Climate change affects water availability

The fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports with medium confidence that global surface temperatures in 2016-2035 will be 0.3°C to 0.7°C higher relative to 1986-2005. Towards the end of the 21st century, the global surface temperature is projected with high confidence to exceed 1.5°C relative to temperatures in the 1800s. Of course, various levels of anthropogenic emission scenarios give us different numbers, underscoring the need for action on emissions. Global warming has been linked to a wide range of water-related risks that also impact indirectly or directly on agricultural production – including animal husbandry and fisheries – and hence on food production and food security. Water is the “teeth and claws” of climate change. But we have an opportunity to flip water from being a challenge into an opportunity. 

A holistic approach to water management is needed

In recent decades, adaptation to climate change impacts has become one key development agenda often also included in national plans and policies. There remains, however, a big gap in translating these global and national policies to local action plans and services. Furthermore, coordination between management and governance systems is a key challenge to ensure that water resource management is done with the purview of balancing benefits across various sectors, stakeholders, and future climate risks. Here, it is important for water resources resiliency and adaptation planning to consider the varying levels of climate vulnerability in a basin given existing structural inequities in gender, income level, class, race, ethnicity, etc.

Globally, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals with their 169 associated targets are demanding for holistic and integrated development. The shift in focus from merely growing productivity to also considering equity, social justice, environmental health, and all other aspects of sustainability has brought development discourses to a crossroads. We are moving into a world where rather than managing water for individual sectors, such as health and sanitation, we must integrate these with other needs such as water for irrigation, hydropower, industry, and ecosystems. This integration must be across multiple users and uses.

Future water resources management and development should ideally include all sectoral demands and achieve various societal objectives in a balanced way, under a wide range of plausible futures (robust) and incorporate adaptive and flexible solutions. And we need to support these solutions through enabling governance structures and policies that allow us to navigate our water resources challenges in turbulent waters. Our survival depends on this.

About the Author: Amina Shahzadi is currently pursuing her degree of MPhil in Environmental Science from UVAS, Lahore. She has keen interest in writing articles, blogs and information related to Environmental Science, Climate change, Bioremediation.