Climate change is a major stress factor for the world’s water resources, heightening risks of conflict in shared basins, threatening health and undermining sustainable development.
During high-level discussions held at COP28 on the thematic days on Peace, Security, and Health and on Agriculture, Food and Water, UNECE and its partners stressed the critical need for joint water management across borders at the centre of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Key measures discussed include strengthened cooperation under the UN Water Convention.
This call was further backed up by a new Policy Brief issued by the Transboundary Water Cooperation Coalition, comprising over 40 governments and organizations.
UNECE Executive Secretary Tatiana Molcean stated that “Climate change is already having huge impacts on water resources, which for 153 countries worldwide are shared with their neighbours. I encourage all UN Member States to join the UN Water Convention and to catalyse climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts through transboundary water cooperation. This can benefit peace and stability, clean energy production, flood and drought resilience, sanitation, financing for adaptation in shared basins, and much more.”
Threats to water and sanitation also undermine security
Water-related disasters such as floods and storms account for nearly 90% of the most severe natural disasters. Floods and extreme rainfall events have surged by more than 50% between 2010 and 2020, and are now occurring at a rate four times higher than in 1980. Other extreme events such as storms, droughts and heatwaves have increased by more than a third between 2010 and 2020 and are being recorded twice as frequently as in 1980. 2023 is set to be the hottest year on record.
In this context, some 2 billion people worldwide already lack access to clean and safe drinking water, and approximately 3.6 billion people – 46% of the world’s population – lack adequate sanitation services. Half of the world’s population is projected to live in water-stressed regions by 2050. These destabilizing effects, combined with population pressures, water needs for agriculture, energy production and industry, deterioration in water quality and environmental degradation, can exacerbate tensions over water and make water-stressed regions more prone to conflict.
The 6th IPCC assessment and the 2023 IPCC synthesis report recognize transboundary risks across the food, energy and water sectors, requiring climate-informed transboundary management.
Cooperation strengthens climate resilience and peace
Because shared basins are home to over 40% of the world population and account for 60% of freshwater flow, cooperation across borders is a key factor to increase resilience to water-related disasters, meet competing water needs, and strengthen the foundations for peace. Strong cooperation also de-risks investments in shared basins, helping to access climate finance for adaptation.
The Policy Brief of the Transboundary Water Cooperation Coalition further underscores how by sharing hydrological and other data, countries can better understand and address transboundary risks, improve forecasting for extreme events and coordinate their disaster responses, as recognized in the Sendai Framework. The UN Water Convention provides a proven global legal and intergovernmental framework to support such joint efforts. More and more countries are joining this treaty to strengthen cooperation, especially in Africa, where 90% of surface water is in shared basins and 9 countries have joined the Convention since 2018, but also in the Middle East and Latin America, marked by the accessions of Iraq and Panama this year.
The Convention has helped to increase resilience to climate change in 6 major basins directly (Chu Talas, Dniester, Drin, Neman, North Western Sahara Aquifer System and Sava). Its Global network of basins working on climate change adaptation has supported adaptation efforts in 13 additional basins.
The discussions emphasized how successful joint management of water resources can transform a potential source of tension into a focus of positive regional cooperation, partnership and sustainable positive change. Experiences from various basins around the world, such as the Danube, the Sava, Lake Chad, Lake Victoria, the Mekong, the Senegal and the Prut show that cooperation for the management of shared water resources can generate multiple benefits and galvanize efforts towards peace.
As highlighted in the Policy Brief, transboundary cooperation has also been raised by a number of countries in the discussions on the Global Goal on Adaptation as it can enable more efficient adaptation and avoid maladaptation. The integration of transboundary aspects into National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, is reflected by the integration of transboundary and/or regional approaches in the NAPs of several countries.
To help governments uphold the human rights to water and sanitation in the face of climate impacts including water scarcity and disease risks from flood-related sewage overflow, the discussions highlighted the Protocol on Water and Health, jointly serviced by UNECE and WHO/Europe. Its mandatory target-setting mechanism has proven to be an effective tool for mainstreaming adaptation to climate change; several Parties, such as Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, the Republic of Moldova and others, have set climate-sensitive targets on water and sanitation.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).