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Bangladesh water source

In coastal countries like Bangladesh, people experience firsthand what it means when the sea level continues to rise and salt water contaminates their fields and wells. The Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB) secures access to fresh water for affected communities through rainwater harvesting and desalination technologies. 

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By Eike Zaumseil, Advisor on Climate Adaptation, Brot für die Welt
Translated from German

First drought, then flood

The projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are dire: our climate will become hotter, drier, and much more extreme. Heat waves, droughts and melting glaciers will exacerbate the difficult situation in many regions where water is already scarce. This includes large parts of Africa, South Asia and many Andean countries in Latin America. Rainy seasons will shift, fail and become more unpredictable.

In some regions, increasing variability in precipitation will even intensify both drought and heavy rainfall events. In drought-prone parts of Eastern Africa, for example, floods used to occur about every five years as part of the El Niño effect. Now, people are facing this sequence of drought and floods almost annually. Soils parched from drought often cannot absorb the sudden influx of water. Fields, streets, and houses are simply washed away. The drinking water supply collapses.

The cost of climate-induced disasters already amounts to triple-digit billions per year. These disasters put a strain on the national budgets of poor countries and their ability to invest in basic infrastructure such as the expansion of safe drinking water and wastewater systems. When Cyclone Idai devastated large parts of Mozambique, it caused more than US$2 billion in losses, according to Munich Re. The damage is equivalent to about one-tenth of country's economic output - an enormous burden. Just a few weeks later, the country was hit by another cyclone.

Overexploitation of a precious resource

Unchecked climate change would have dramatic consequences for regional water availability. But it is by no means the only problem. While the world population has tripled in the last 100 years, water consumption has increased sixfold. Increases in water extraction, consumption, and pollution, especially by agribusiness, extractive industries and growing cities, have long since exceeded the limits of sustainable water use in many places.

In addition, some climate change adaptation and mitigation measures can further exacerbate the water crisis. Many countries rely on large hydropower dams to expand renewable energies. These often destroy rivers and thus the sensitive water cycles of entire regions. In recent years, the massive expansion of bioenergy production has also led to an increasing competition for water and land.

Climate targets and long-term mitigation pathways increasingly rely on large-scale tree planting or bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a truly massive scale. The assumptions are highly problematic, not least because of the vast amounts of land and irrigation required to grow all these trees and crops.

Beyond scarcity: poverty and inequality

Today more than two billion people still lack safe access to clean drinking water. However, this is not primarily a consequence of climate change and water shortages, but rather a result of poverty and inequality. Differences in access to water between rich and poor households and between urban and rural areas are striking. In particular, marginalized and low-income groups lack access to clean water. Often there is a lack of financial resources or simply the lack of political will to supply the poorest population with drinking water.

In rural areas, this concerns not only the lack of drinking water, but also water for food security. In many countries, smallholder farmers and nomadic herders are marginalized by the intensified competition for water, in favour of water-intense "cash crops" of industrial export agriculture such as soy, cotton or avocados. The increased water contamination and water extraction for export from relatively dry areas harms local ecosystems and communities and shows the global dimension of water injustice.

Ensure fairness and sustainability

To make the human right to water a reality worldwide, we need ambitious climate action as well as a fair distribution and sustainable use of scarce water resources.  Industrialized countries like Germany not only have a special responsibility as the biggest climate offenders. They also directly contribute to water scarcity and pollution in other countries through the world markets. Trade agreements and supply chains of companies must be systematically analysed and geared towards promoting more sustainable trade and water use.

Since climate change will exacerbate conflicts over water, there is also an urgent need to strengthen the rights of disadvantaged groups in decisions relating to water supply and water use. They must have a say in these decisions and their land and water rights which are often informal must be protected and officially recognized. The partner organizations of Bread for the World contribute to this effort. They educate people about their rights and help them to defend them against powerful and better organized economic interests.

The lack of water is not a fate, but the result of discrimination and public policy failures. This is especially true in times of climate change.