1. Home
  2. Aland Islands

Climate change's threat to water needs more study

Private tankers fill up raw water pumped out of the River Bengo at the privately-run water station in Kifangondo, 20 km outside Luanda, Angola, August 2007. The river is dark with grit and its banks are strewn with garbage. There, at the end of a deeply r
(Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN)

Models to predict the impact of climate change on potable water and the management of wastewater are needed to deal with the expected increase in water-related illnesses as result of global warming, says a new policy brief by the United Nations University (UNU).

"We need greater investment in the development of models to aid decision-making, reduce uncertainty and augment costly monitoring programmes," said Corinne Wallace, a leading water health researcher at UNU's International Network on Water, Environment and Health, and one of the authors of a new policy brief.

"Combining these efforts with a vulnerability map for water-associated diseases can form the basis for evidence-based policy development," she said. "Validated models need to be developed that will predict the impact of climate change on water and wastewater infrastructure, water availability, water quality and waterborne/water-associated diseases."

The results could be used for policy development, intervention, adaptation and mitigation purposes, as well as determining the effects on achieving Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and global migration patterns.

Climate change is expected to bring more frequent and intense rain to many places, leading to floods and shallow subsurface water flow, which can mobilise pathogens and other contaminants, the brief noted. 

Higher temperatures could also change the rates of reproduction, survival and infectivity of various pathogens. "Even if not directly linked to health, these threats can have a devastating effect on the ecosystem, indirectly threatening water supplies."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that global warming will affect not only the function of water infrastructure, but operation and management practices as well, according to the UNU brief.

''Sea-level rise will affect groundwater aquifers in coastal areas and flood low-lying areas, reducing freshwater availability. It is estimated that by 2030 the risk of diarrhoea will be up to 10 percent higher in some countries due to climate change''

"Generally, water treatment plants and distribution systems are built to withstand weather events of a given return period or probability (e.g. the 100-year flood). Under changing climate conditions, these return periods are likely to alter, increasing the likelihood of and frequency at which drinking- and wastewater-infrastructure systems will be overwhelmed."

Water and sanitation services need to be scaled up to address the impact of climate change, the authors of the brief said. Flooding can also affect chemical storage and sewage facilities, compromising water supply quality. 

Sea-level rise will affect groundwater aquifers in coastal areas and flood low-lying areas, reducing freshwater availability. It is estimated that by 2030 the risk of diarrhoea will be up to 10 percent higher in some countries due to climate change.

Greater migration as a result of water stress or increased food insecurity means that diseases will be transported to other regions, where they may or may not be able to survive, potentially exposing host communities to new diseases. "Policies at various levels and their implementation, however, do not reflect this principle," the authors noted.

"Improved access to clean water can reduce diarrhoea and waterborne diseases by at least 25 percent; improved sanitation is accompanied by more than a 30 percent reduction in child mortality. This urgent global challenge is pragmatically achievable, politically feasible and ethically important."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

Right now, we’re working with contributors on the ground in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to tell the stories of people enduring and responding to a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis.

We’re documenting the threats to humanitarian response in the country and providing a platform for those bearing the brunt of the invasion. Our goal is to bring you the truth at a time when disinformation is rampant. 

But while much of the world’s focus may be on Ukraine, we are continuing our reporting on myriad other humanitarian disasters – from Haiti to the Sahel to Afghanistan to Myanmar. We’ve been covering humanitarian crises for more than 25 years, and our journalism has always been free, accessible for all, and – most importantly – balanced. 

You can support our journalism from just $5 a month, and every contribution will go towards our mission. 

Support The New Humanitarian today.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.