Publication // Moving from water problems to water solutions in a climate-challenged world

This is an abstract of an article that originally appeared in Rural21 (, an international journal for rural development. It covers the opportunities and challenges the global community faces in regard to water resource management in the coming years. It is calling for an increase in integrated approaches like the Water-Energy-Food Nexus.

Water is an integral source of life and connected to all sectors of human life and activity. When looking at the history of modern human development, one can see that all of the early civilizations were established close to water bodies. 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. As such, the management of water cuts across sectors and international boundaries.

The by far biggest share of the earth´s enormous water reserves are represented by the oceans, holding 97.5 percent of it in saline form – which leaves just 2.5 percent of global water resources as fresh water, fit for human consumption. Yet again, more than two thirds of this amount are bound in frozen form, such as glaciers and polar caps, and the remaining third is almost completely buried beneath the surface, leaving just 1.2 percent of fresh water easily accessible in the form of lakes, wetlands, rivers, streams, soil moisture or biological water.

Water availability calculations are based on the water resources available per spatial unit (e.g. basin or country) and time. 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 world-wide. Water available in a particular country might or might not be generated within its own borders. For instance, upstream countries like Bhutan, Nepal, Ethiopia or China generate basically all their water within their geographical boundaries, while downstream countries like Bangladesh, Egypt, parts of Vietnam or the Netherlands receive the vast majority of their water from across their geographical boundaries.

In certain places, such as uplands in mountainous areas, water availability might be low even though a large river flows just a few hundred metres away in the valley below. If the upland areas have the economic means to access the river water through pumping, they do not have water scarcity issues. Similarly, groundwater or even shallow groundwater might be available, but lacking infrastructure to pump groundwater and necessary capacity, many countries face what is called economic water scarcity. This is especially true in many areas in Africa and South and South-East Asia.

The linkage of food systems and water

Agriculture is the largest water user, responsible for about 70 per cent of all freshwater withdrawals, most of which is used for irrigation. The 2018 United Nations World Water Development Report forecasts a 60 per cent increase in food demand by 2050, translating into an increased water usage. Right now, 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. 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 less resources – referred to as sustainable agricultural intensification (SAI).

Climate change and water availability

The IPCC warns that although projected changes particularly in precipitation are not uniform globally, extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions. 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. These include extreme events in the global water cycle such as floods, droughts and tropical storms, increased volatility in seasons properties such as rainfall and temperatures, or increased water pollution caused by massive nutrient and toxic substance influx under those extreme events. Other detrimental impacts can be seen when looking at the loss of snow cover and glacier ice occurring all over the globe, or the declining groundwater availability. For instance, groundwater storage in the Murray-Darling basin declined substantially from 2000 to 2007 in response to a sharp reduction in recharge during the 1996 – 2010 Millennium Drought in Southern Australia.

Thus, water can be seen as a principal medium through which the earth´s population will experience climate-related stresses, which also means that is holds the key position for opportunities to reduce or mitigate the effect of those stresses.

The call for integrated approaches

The direct impacts of climate change on water will be effectively “multiplied” via the effects on the other sectors linked together in the water-energy-food-environment-livelihood nexus. So it’s clear that we need integrated approaches. Improved water management options from farm-level water management to basin level, if done appropriately, will not only reduce current water-related risks and insecurities but also mitigate many of the potential negative impacts of climate change. Several concepts, such as the Integrated Water Resources Management, the Water-Energy-Food nexus and the Water Security frameworks, have been promoting various integrative and holistic approaches for basin water management. There have also been many initiatives, such as the establishment of river basin authorities, to introduce related processes around the globe that promote integrated river basin management and development. Despite these efforts, the actual management of water in most countries, and especially in the Global South, is still very fragmented and sectoral. This leads to inefficiency, unsustainability and, under certain conditions, even to conflicts.

  • Integrated water management will play a key role in the implementation of all SDGs because of the interdependencies between many of the goals and targets. Therefore, understanding and managing trade-offs well will be essential.
  • 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, such as the Water, Agriculture and Energy sector.
  • 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 journal

Rural21 is an international journal dedicated to all topics surrounding rural development and has been in place for more than 50 years. It addresses the complete range of relevant themes – from agriculture and fisheries via capacity building and education through to health and social security, energy supply and trade. Center-stage is always devoted to inquiring into how measures and strategies can contribute to global food security and to reducing poverty. 

About the authors

Luna Bharati is a Principal Researcher at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and is based at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at Bonn University, Germany.

Stefan Uhlenbrook is Strategic Program Director for Water, Food and Ecosystems at the International Water Management Institute in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Contact: L.bharati(at)


March 2020


© Rural21


Rural21: Moving from water problems to water solutions in a climate-challenged world


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