Water and Climate

The climate crisis is a water crisis.  The most disastrous consequence of global warming is how it impacts the water cycle. We can already see this in the form of increasingly devastating floods and droughts. The alarming melting of snow and ice contributes to rising sea levels, more unpredictable rainfall patterns and a growing number of extreme weather events. Eventually, the changes to the water cycle, combined with extremely hot temperatures, could make large parts of Earth uninhabitable. To avoid this, we must tackle the climate crisis as the water crisis it is. 


The climate crisis is a water crisis. It is only when we realize this that we can come up with solutions that are effective enough to make a real difference. Here is what you need to know about water and climate. 

The word “water” may not be what immediately springs to mind when you think about climate change – but it should be. The most dramatic effect of climate change is how it impacts the water cycle

This will play out in many different ways, all of them potentially dangerous:

Weirder weather and stranger seasons | Around the world, seasons and precipitation patterns (rain and snow) are getting more and more unpredictableputting ecosystems under pressure and making it increasingly difficult for people to access food and water. One example is how the monsoon system is becoming more erratic, which impacts food and water security for a quarter of the global population.

A sharp increase in disasters | Most extreme weather events are water-related, whether its floods, droughts or hurricanes. Changes to the water cycle could make such disasters both more frequent and more severePoor and vulnerable groups will suffer the mostwiping out decades of progress in reducing poverty.


Dangerously rising sea levels | The rapid melting of snow and ice, including retreating glaciers, is causing an alarming rise in sea levels. Many of the world’s most populous cities, such as Mumbai, Shanghai and New York, could eventually be underwater. New research indicates that the effect will be far more drastic than previously believed.

Parts of the Earth could become
uninhabitable |
 A combination of higher temperatures and an altered water cycle will put ecosystems and societies in many parts of the world under extreme stress.

A growing risk of tipping points | We have already surpassed several of the ecological thresholds mapped by science. Scientists fear tipping points, which is where processes spiral out of control – for example, thawing permafrost could release greenhouse gases to an extent that amplifies global warming. 

The common thread between these diverse threats is that they are all linked to impacts on the water cycle. These threats can only be managed if the delicate balance of the water cycle is restored. The climate crisis is a water crisis and must be treated as such. 

We choose what the world will look like in 2050!

Looming water and climate threats 

Food production falls by 30 per cent
Without adaptation, climate change may depress global agriculture yields by up to 30 per cent by 2050. Africa will be hit particularly hard since the continent is expected to get much drier while its population could almost double. The UN has recently warned that southern Africa is already in the throes of a climate emergency, with rapidly growing hunger. 

Sea-level rise threatens the world’s largest cities
By 2050, many of the world’s most populous cities will be below sea level. New research shows that this may impact three times as many people as previously believed. 

Megacities such as Mumbai (estimated to be the world’s largest city in 2050), Shanghai, Dhaka, Lagos, Tokyo and New York are all at risk. 

Weather extremes can become yearly events
Among the many shocking revelations in the 2019 IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and the Cryosphere in a Changing Climate was the warning that disasters previously hitting mankind once in a century could have become a yearly occurrence by 2050. The report also noted that by 2050, one billion people are expected to live in low-lying coastal zones. 


… that could be solved 

Food production gets smart
Major investments in agriculture can help the world avoid a hunger crisis. By 2050, smallholder farmers in southern Africa could be more food secure through for example rainwater harvestingagroforestry and small-scale irrigation. New technologies and more research can help us develop robust crops and water-efficient solutions. 

Resilient cities rise above water levels
If we keep the global temperature increase below 1.5 degreeswe can limit the damage from rising sea-levels – but a new approach to city planning is also needed. By 2050, all cities should be built to be resilient and make use of existing landscapes. Coral reefs, mangroves and wetlands can protect us from rising water levels. 

Extreme weather has reduced impact
By 2050, more people could survive disasters if we focus on boosting societies’ resilience. This includes better buildingsnew early-warning systems and smarter planning. Protect wetlands and let them buffer against floods and recharge groundwater, even during dry spells. Invest in wastewater treatment and safe sanitation so that people can cope with a growing number of diseases. 


The climate crisis has hit faster and harder than scientists predicted, but the world is struggling to respond. We need to look at both the problem and the solutions in a new way – through a water lens.

Many have been shocked by the unexpectedly dire consequences of the one-degree temperature increase we have experienced so farsome of which were not expected to occur before the world got at least two degrees warmer. This has made more people aware both that climate adaptation is already urgently needed, and that the temperature rise should preferably be kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius. But many are also painfully aware that this will not be easy. According to the UN Environment’s Emissions Gap Report 2019global climate commitments must increase more than fivefold in the coming decade. 

The next step? Greater focus on water. Here is why water is crucial to our chances of tackling climate change. 

Reason one: water solutions multi-task | What does this mean? We have already seen that a 1.5degree temperature rise will force us to adapt to a more dangerous and unpredictable world – and we need to cut emissions radically to avoid a more drastic temperature rise. It is not enough to judge climate actions on their ability to either help us adapt to climate change or mitigate it by reducing emissions. Instead, we need to prioritize actions that let us do both simultaneously.  

Water solutions help us do that. Forests and wetlands are a great example: they should be protected not only because they’re the most important land-based carbon sinks, but they also recharge groundwater and provide a buffer against storms. Mangrove forest can hold the equivalent of two years of global greenhouse gas emissions whilst playing a key role in protecting coastal cities from rising sea levels.

Reason two: climate change is felt through water | Almost all the major impacts of climate change are felt through water – via disasters such as floods or droughts, or in the form of more unpredictable rainfall. All relevant sectors need to incorporate measures of disaster risk reduction into their governance structures as part of climate adaption in order to build resilient societies.

Reason three: competition over water will increase | Climate change, growing populations and increased demand could lead to water becoming more scarce in many parts of the world. We can expect fierce competition over this increasingly limited resource. The question of who gets what water will be hard to answer and requires good water governance. Water must be managed efficiently, ensuring that vulnerable groups and nature get their fair share. The good news is that water can also help countries find ways to collaborate and develop more efficient climate strategies than if they all only fend for themselves. 

Reason four: landscapes can save us | The role of landscapes is only now starting to receive the attention it deserves in the climate debate, despite oceans, wetlands and forests being Earth’s most important carbon sinks. In 2019, two assessment reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demonstrated why climate policy must focus on oceansresilient landscapes and how to keep the water cycle in balance. With this understanding comes the promise of new, nature-based solutions – but also a responsibility, to let parts of the world remain unaltered by humans.  

Simply put, a water perspective will make our climate strategies smarter and more efficient. 


To tackle the climate crisis effectively, more people must understand that it is a water crisis. Here’s what you can do.


Knowledge is of course essential. By signing up for SIWI’s newsletter, you can get new knowledge, follow the debate and be inspired by creative solutions from around the world. 


For more in-depth water knowledge, don’t miss our MOOC on Water – Addressing the Global Crisis. Here you can learn more about how the climate crisis is linked to other major water challenges. 


In this year’s World Water Development Report, Water & Climate Change, world-leading experts, including SIWI’s Maggie White, shed new light on this, often overlooked, linkage.


This year World Water Day is on 22 March. Due to global events, we have decided to postpone our celebration of it until the hydrological new year: 30 September 2020. We will be hosting a day of discussion with water experts focusing on the role of water in climate change. Register here

Our World Water Day event is on 30 September 2020 

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