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Water at the heart of global geopolitical issues

Access to water: inequalities reinforced by climate change

Stéphanie Dos Santos, Sociologist and demographer at IRD Population Environment Development Laboratory and Marine Colon, Lecturer at AgroParisTech and Researcher in Public Management
On February 27th, 2024 |
4 min reading time
Marine Colon
Marine Colon
Lecturer at AgroParisTech and Researcher in Public Management
Stéphanie Dos Santos
Stéphanie Dos Santos
Sociologist and demographer at IRD Population Environment Development Laboratory
Key takeaways
  • Water scarcity is a global issue, with quarter of the world’s population facing extreme water stress every year.
  • The Sustainable Development Goals discussed in 2015 were supposed to ensure universal and equitable access to drinking water at an affordable cost.
  • Future predictions are worrying – population growth, changing lifestyles, increasing pollution and accelerating urbanisation will continue to widen these inequalities.
  • The issue of water is likely to increase gender inequalities, as women can spend up to 10 times more time than men fetching water.
  • The climate crisis is exacerbating the situation by making water scarcer in arid areas and increasing extreme events tenfold.

Four bil­lion peo­ple live at least one month a year with severe water short­ages1. While the Earth’s fresh­wa­ter resources are the­o­ret­i­cal­ly suf­fi­cient to sup­ply the world’s pop­u­la­tion, the fact that they are uneven­ly dis­trib­uted across the globe part­ly explains these short­ages. The stakes are high: the water cri­sis is one of the five biggest risks iden­ti­fied in the World Eco­nom­ic Forum’s risk report2. Access to good qual­i­ty water helps to ensure liveli­hoods, human well-being, socio-eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, pre­serves ecosys­tems and a cli­mate of peace and polit­i­cal stability.

Water stress, a global issue

In 2023, the World Resources Insti­tute3 shows that 25 coun­tries – home to a quar­ter of the world’s pop­u­la­tion – face extreme water stress every year. Qatar, Oman, Lebanon, Kuwait, Cyprus and oth­ers are con­sum­ing more than 80% of their avail­able reserves. “How­ev­er, we need to be care­ful about the dif­fer­ence between avail­abil­i­ty and access to water,” points out Marine Colon. “Access to drink­ing water requires infra­struc­ture to col­lect, treat, store, and dis­trib­ute water. It also requires organ­i­sa­tions and an insti­tu­tion­al frame­work that guar­an­tees the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of the ser­vice pro­vid­ed. Today, the lack of infra­struc­ture and the fail­ure of water ser­vices are the main obsta­cles to access to water”.

Water inse­cu­ri­ty, unlike water short­age, con­sid­ers the avail­abil­i­ty of the resource, but also access to dis­tri­b­u­tion ser­vices, suf­fi­cient qual­i­ty, and appro­pri­ate gov­er­nance. “Tech­ni­cal solu­tions exist, such as desali­na­tion plants,” points out Stéphanie Dos San­tos. “Desert coun­tries with finan­cial resources have no prob­lem with access to water.” Some regions of the Unit­ed States, Aus­tralia and south­ern Europe have major water deficits, but water inse­cu­ri­ty is low there because of good gov­er­nance, qual­i­ty, and acces­si­bil­i­ty. Con­verse­ly, water avail­abil­i­ty is rel­a­tive­ly good in many parts of Africa, but inse­cu­ri­ty is high.

Cli­mate change is clear­ly going to exac­er­bate inequalities

Since 2015, the Mem­ber States of the UN have com­mit­ted to meet­ing 17 Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Goals (SDGs) by 2030: uni­ver­sal and equi­table access to safe drink­ing water at an afford­able cost is one of them4. The sit­u­a­tion has improved since then. The pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion ben­e­fit­ing from safe drink­ing water has risen from 69% to 73% by 2022. But no region of the world is on track to meet the UN tar­get – only 32 coun­tries are on track, 78 are pro­gress­ing too slow­ly and access to water is declin­ing in 16 coun­tries. Despite the com­mit­ment of gov­ern­ments, in 2022, 2.2 bil­lion peo­ple will still not have access to safe drink­ing water5.

As for basic drink­ing water sup­ply ser­vices, 703 mil­lion peo­ple are still deprived of them. “These inter­na­tion­al indi­ca­tors assess access to water dis­tri­b­u­tion facil­i­ties only, with­out tak­ing into account the qual­i­ty of the water,” adds Stéphanie Dos San­tos. “They over­es­ti­mate the pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion with access to water.” For Marine Colon, these indi­ca­tors, pub­lished each year by the joint UNICEF/World Health Organ­i­sa­tion (WHO) mon­i­tor­ing pro­gramme, have pro­vid­ed con­tin­u­ous, uni­ver­sal mon­i­tor­ing since 2000: “They should be treat­ed with cau­tion, but they do give an order of magnitude.”

Some parts of the pop­u­la­tion are much more affect­ed by water inse­cu­ri­ty. For exam­ple, access to drink­ing water is high­ly cor­re­lat­ed with a coun­try’s income. By 2022, in less devel­oped coun­tries, only 60% of the pop­u­la­tion will have access to basic drink­ing water ser­vices, and 35% to basic san­i­ta­tion ser­vices. Anoth­er obser­va­tion is that the infra­struc­ture need­ed to pro­vide water is more avail­able in towns than in rur­al areas (with the excep­tion of Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Turks and Caicos Islands and Cos­ta Rica). In 2022, 62% of peo­ple liv­ing in rur­al areas will have access to water that is man­aged safe­ly. This fig­ure ris­es to 81% for urban populations.

“It’s a ques­tion of installing infra­struc­ture, but also of main­tain­ing it,” explains Marine Colon. “The 1981–1990 Water Decade showed the lack of atten­tion paid to the oper­a­tion and main­te­nance of infra­struc­tures: 40% to 60% of instal­la­tions are gen­er­al­ly out of order in rur­al areas6. It is vital to set up man­age­ment sys­tems to ensure the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of infra­struc­ture – train­ing, sup­ply chains for spare parts, equip­ment, fund­ing mech­a­nisms, etc.” The good cov­er­age of urban pop­u­la­tions masks oth­er disparities.

The good cov­er­age of urban pop­u­la­tions masks oth­er dis­par­i­ties. “Peo­ple liv­ing in infor­mal set­tle­ments find it dif­fi­cult, if not impos­si­ble, to claim access to a water net­work”, says Marine Colon .This is par­tic­u­lar­ly the case in sub-Saha­ran Africa, where the major­i­ty of the urban pop­u­la­tion lives in these neigh­bour­hoods. Demo­graph­ic growth, chang­ing lifestyles, increas­ing pol­lu­tion and accel­er­at­ing urban­i­sa­tion will con­tin­ue to exac­er­bate these inequal­i­ties7.

Water widens gender inequalities

Anoth­er large part of the pop­u­la­tion is large­ly affect­ed by the lack of access to water: women. World­wide, 1.8 bil­lion peo­ple col­lect water out­side their homes, and in 7 out of 10 house­holds, women are respon­si­ble for this task. “Access to water is at the heart of all devel­op­ment issues: school­ing, pover­ty, gen­der,” adds Stéphanie Dos San­tos. “When a child has queued all night at a col­lec­tion point, or gets up ear­ly to fetch water, they can’t go to school.” This par­tic­u­lar­ly affects women and girls in sub-Saha­ran Africa and Cen­tral and South Asia. The time spent per house­hold col­lect­ing water varies from 55 min­utes in Malawi to less than one minute in the Domini­can Repub­lic. In coun­tries where water col­lec­tion takes the longest, women are more respon­si­ble for this task: they can spend up to 10 times more time than men (Bangladesh, Chad, Gam­bia, Guinea-Bis­sau and Malawi).

In the future, the pic­ture will be even bleak­er. “Cli­mate change is clear­ly going to exac­er­bate inequal­i­ties,” asserts Marine Colon. The avail­abil­i­ty of water resources will decrease, adding a bil­lion peo­ple to the list of those liv­ing under extreme water stress by 2050.m In addi­tion to the increas­ing scarci­ty of water in arid zones, oth­er regions will be affect­ed by a rise in extreme events.

“In Abid­jan, the author­i­ties are con­sid­er­ing sup­ply­ing the city with water from a lagoon,” explains Stéphanie Dos San­tos. “How­ev­er, the avail­abil­i­ty of water dur­ing extreme rain­fall is an issue, because of the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of the water when the soil is washed away.” Oth­er reper­cus­sions con­cern water dis­tri­b­u­tion net­works. “Extreme events are like­ly to dete­ri­o­rate exist­ing infra­struc­tures, as hap­pened dur­ing the floods in Der­na (Libya) in 2023, and some infra­struc­tures will no longer be suit­able,” explains Marine Colon. “In some African towns, the lev­el of bore­holes is now becom­ing insuf­fi­cient, or water intakes from reser­voirs are being left in the open air.”

At a time when con­flicts of use are already putting con­sid­er­able pres­sure on water resources, cli­mate change will exac­er­bate this effect. Demand for water is set to increase by 20–25% between now and 2050. It will explode in sub-Saha­ran Africa, ris­ing by more than 150%. The pro­por­tion of dis­placed pop­u­la­tions set­tling in infor­mal set­tle­ments will increase as a result of cli­mate change, some­times pro­vok­ing new con­flicts. “In south­ern Tunisia in par­tic­u­lar, we are already see­ing con­flicts over the use of water between the native pop­u­la­tion and the dis­placed pop­u­la­tion”, says Marine Colon. Stephanie Dos San­tos con­cludes: “Invest­ment and good water gov­er­nance are essential.”

Anaïs Maréchal
1Dou­ville, H., K. Ragha­van, J. Ren­wick, R.P. Allan, P.A. Arias, M. Bar­low, R. Cere­zo-Mota, A. Cher­chi, T.Y. Gan, J. Ger­gis, D. Jiang, A. Khan, W. Pokam Mba, D. Rosen­feld, J. Tier­ney, and O. Zoli­na, 2021: Water Cycle Changes. In Cli­mate Change 2021: The Phys­i­cal Sci­ence Basis. Con­tri­bu­tion of Work­ing Group I to the Sixth Assess­ment Report of the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change [Mas­son-Del­motte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Con­nors, C. Péan, S. Berg­er, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Gold­farb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lon­noy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. May­cock, T. Water­field, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, Cam­bridge, Unit­ed King­dom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 1055–1210, doi: 10.1017/9781009157896.010.
2Caret­ta, M.A., A. Mukher­ji, M. Arfanuz­za­man, R.A. Betts, A. Gelfan, Y. Hirabayashi, T.K. Liss­ner, J. Liu, E. Lopez Gunn, R. Mor­gan, S. Mwan­ga, and S. Supratid, 2022: Water. In: Cli­mate Change 2022: Impacts, Adap­ta­tion and Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. Con­tri­bu­tion of Work­ing Group II to the Sixth Assess­ment Report of the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change [H.-O. Pört­ner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tign­or, E.S. Poloczan­s­ka, K. Minten­beck, A. Ale­gría, M. Craig, S. Langs­dorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, Cam­bridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, pp. 551–712, doi:10.1017/9781009325844.006.
5Progress on house­hold drink­ing water, san­i­ta­tion and hygiene 2000–2022: spe­cial focus on gen­der. New York: Unit­ed Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Orga­ni­za­tion (WHO), 2023.

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