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Report urges more water crisis planning

Nations must prepare better for more water-related disasters along with a growing lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation, WMO reported.

Flooded roads at a suburb of Sydney, Australia in 2020
Flooded roads at a suburb of Sydney, Australia in 2020 (AN/Phillip Flores)

GENEVA (AN) — Nations must prepare better for a world of increasing floods, droughts and other water-related disasters along with a growing lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation that will affect 5 billion people by 2050, the U.N. weather agency reported on Tuesday.

The World Meteorological Organization said water-related hazards are on the rise due to climate change, yet most nations' water management systems are "fragmented and inadequate" to monitor, forecast and warn people against the risks.

Its report, which is based on the work of more than 20 international organizations, development agencies and scientific institutions, found 3.6 billion people had inadequate access to water at least one month per year in 2018, and this is expected to rise to more than 5 billion people by mid-century.

“Increasing temperatures are resulting in global and regional precipitation changes, leading to shifts in rainfall patterns and agricultural seasons, with a major impact on food security and human health and well-being,” said WMO's secretary-general, Petteri Taalas, a Finnish meteorologist. “We need to wake up to the looming water crisis."

Flood-related disasters increased 134% from 2000 to 2020 compared to the previous two decades, the agency reported, while total surface water, ground water and other water stored in the ground through ice, snow and soil fell by 1 centimeter a year.

The biggest losses were in Antarctica and Greenland, but many places in lower latitudes that are highly populated and traditionally serve as water sources for their regions also experienced "significant water losses."

Just 0.5% of all water on the planet is freshwater that is available and useable, according to WMO. Water shortages already affect 25% of all cities.

2 billion living in 'water-stressed' nations

WMO officials recommended more international coordination and better warning systems against river flooding and droughts. Flood-related disasters rose by 134% since 2000 compared to the previous two decades, with most of the associated deaths and economic losses seen in Asia in part due to inadequate warning systems.

Droughts increased by 29% over the same timeframe, both in terms of duration and numbers, and caused the most deaths in Africa, while it led to the most economic losses in Asia, the Caribbean and North America.

“Lack of water continues to be a major cause of concern for many nations, especially in Africa," Taalas said. "More than 2 billion people live in water-stressed countries and suffer lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation."

The report also reviewed nations' capacity to achieve one of the United Nation's 17 anti-poverty goals for 2030: the ability to sustainably manage water resources.

As many as 107 countries remain "off track" in the progress towards that goal, WMO said, while 75 countries have below-average levels of water efficiency, which measures how well they use technologies to conserve and ensure reliable water supplies.

WMO said 60% of the world's national public agencies that are responsible for providing their governments with basic hydrological information and warning services are deficient at offering climate-related information that can help officials to improve their decision-making about public water resources.

Among those findings, which were based on an assessment of 101 nations for which there was available data, WMO said 40% do not collect data on basic hydrological variables and 54% lack or have inadequate drought forecasting and warning systems.