Climate Change and the World's Water, with a Specific Focus on the Sustainable Development, Land Use and Forests

Speech by Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General, and Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to Members of the European Parliament

Brussels, 29 January 2008 - Members of the European Parliament, distinguished guests, colleagues, friends, ladies and gentlemen,

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, the words "recession" and "global meltdown" were not far from delegates" lips.

But there was another phrase that took centre stage - this phrase was "water neutrality".

Across the world, countries like Costa Rica, New Zealand and Norway, alongside corporations, cities and the United Nations, are pledging and adopting "climate neutrality" as one inspiring response to the challenge of climate change.

The challenge of water has been with us for far longer.

So why has it suddenly propelled itself onto the radar of senior industry figures and in the past few days become a top agenda item for multi-national corporations?


I think you need look no further than the latest findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)- the group of some 2,000 scientists established by UNEP and the World Meteorological Organisation.

The challenge of future water supplies and availability flows through almost every conclusion of the IPCC's fourth assessment report.

- Himalayan glaciers are receding faster than in any other part of the world. Half a billion people in the Himalaya-Hindu-Kush region and a quarter billion downstream who rely on glacial melt waters could be seriously affected.

- Glaciers in these areas could, at current rates of global warming, disappear altogether by 2035, if not sooner.

- The Ganga, Indus, Brahmaputra and other rivers that traverse the northern Indian plain may become seasonal rivers in the near future as a consequence of climate change, with important ramifications for the economies of the region.

The IPCC outlines similar scenarios across other parts of the developing world.

- Between 75 and 250 million people in Africa will be at risk of increased water stress with a 1° C rise and between 350 and 600 million with a 2° C climb.

- In the next 15 years inter-tropical glaciers in Latin America are very likely to disappear.

- By the 2020s the net increase in the number of people experiencing water stress in the same region is likely to be between 7 and 77 million. For the second half of the century these numbers could reach between 60 and 150 million.

In the past, the water crisis has perhaps been seen as one facing the developing world.

Most of the developed world seemed awash with plentiful supplies of rainfall and the technology and finance to capture surplus in big dams.

But the IPCC challenges that comfortable assumption by making it clear that no country or continent will be immune.

- In the United States, ground-water flows from the Edwards Aquifer in Texas, for example, could drop by up to 40 per cent in a key agricultural area.

- Just over 40 per cent of the supply to southern California is likely to be vulnerable by the 2020s due to warming triggering losses of the Sierra Nevada and Colorado River basin snow pack.

- Southern Europe is also pinpointed as especially vulnerable to droughts, with rainfall falling by perhaps as much as 80 per cent over the coming decades.

The economic impacts and the financial implications for corporations alongside society are profound.

Indeed they can already be discerned in the experience of various regions in terms of recent and current droughts.

- Currently at least 24 nuclear plants in the southeastern United States face shutdown or drastically limited operations because severe drought conditions have lowered the levels of lakes and rivers that supply cooling water-that's 23 percent of the nation's 104 nuclear power plants.

- Last year in Italy, the River Po ran so low there were plans to shut down power plants there.

- Only a few weeks ago it was reported that the Yangtze was at its lowest level for 142 years, with big ships marooned as a result of the drought in China.

- Last year in Turkey, heat and drought caused major crop failures and forced Ankara to ration city water.

- By autumn, the water supplies in Cyprus's reservoirs had dwindled to 9 per cent of capacity. Fires raged across Spain, Italy, Croatia and Algeria in one of the worst seasons since the European Union began tracking in the 1980s.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is therefore clear that when you talk about climate change, you are also talking about "water change"- they are inseparable.

It is also clear that when you talk about climate neutrality you are also talking about water and its future abundance or scarcity.

Thus any sensible water policy for the 21st century must include combating climate change.

Bali Road Map

It is clear that the international community must successfully navigate the Bali Road Map, agreed at the last climate convention, by the time of the climate change meeting scheduled in Copenhagen in 2009.

It is clear that without a deep and decisive climate regime post-2012 our ability to meet the Millennium Development Goals as they relate to water, and also to poverty and so many other issues, will be tough?to put it mildly.

One key issue is how to mobilize the financial markets to respond to the climate challenge.

This will be among the key issues facing environment ministers in Monaco when they gather in late February for UNEP's Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum.

But even without climate change, we already have a water crisis in many parts of the world based on decades of perhaps overly simplistic views of the root problems and solutions.

Ladies and gentlemen,

For some, the challenge of water can be solved by taps, pipes, pumping stations and big reservoirs.

However, there are other avenues which, perhaps because they are small-scale, are often overlooked.

One of the great myths of Africa, for example, is that it is short of water- the fact is Africa is not.

Rainwater Harvesting

A recent report by UNEP and the World Agroforestry Centre estimates that there is enough water falling on Africa to theoretically supply 13 billion people or twice the world population.

A country like Kenya, where UNEP is headquartered, with a population of somewhere under 40 million people, actually has enough rainfall to supply the needs of six to seven times its current population.

Ethiopia, where just over a fifth of the population are covered by domestic water supply and an estimated 46 per cent of the population suffer hunger, has a potential rainwater harvest equivalent to the population needs of over 520 million people.

The fact is that much of this water is never collected. You may logically conclude that big reservoirs are the answer and in some cases you may be right.

But for the cost of a few tens of dollars, you can put in rainwater harvesting into communities using pits, collectors or other low-cost solutions.

I wish you could see the faces of the Maasai women near to Nairobi who have been benefiting from such a scheme.

Ecosystem Approach

And there are other options too- options with far wider benefits than may at first be recognized.

UNEP is a leading advocate of the ecosystem approach.

An estimated four billion people, or two thirds of the current population, ultimately derive their water not from taps but from two places-forests and mountain ecosystems.

Forests contribute close to 60 per cent of the global "run off" and mountains close to 30 per cent.

Over the past 15 years, there has been an annual loss of 50,000 square kilometres of primary forest, mainly for conversion to agriculture and plantations.

Globally the world's forest cover shrank by 0.2 per cent a year between 1990 and 2005, according to UNEP's latest Global Environment Outlook-4.

Wetlands are also important ecosystems in terms of natural storage of water, yet half have been lost, mainly to drainage for uses such as agriculture since 1900.

These kinds of ecosystems are not only important for water- their economic value stretches across areas such as biodiversity, genes for new generations of crops and drugs, flood protection; soil stabilization and fisheries.

Investing in the conservation and restoration of such ecosystems will thus not only assist with the water challenge but also with the wider development and sustainability agenda.

At least in terms of forests, the climate change challenge is coming to assist the water one.

REDD and Adaptation

At the Bali climate convention meeting, governments agreed to include Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in the negotiation package.

If forests are about water, they are also certainly about climate change- an estimated 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation in the tropics.

The Adaptation Fund, whose administrative structure was agreed in Bali, can- if sufficiently funded- also reflect the need to climate proof economies and in doing so echo the water agenda too.

Debt for Nature Swaps

There are other encouraging signs with a small but growing number of what are called debt-for-nature swaps being concluded.

In 2006, for example, the United States has concluded a debt-for-nature swap with Paraguay. The more than seven million dollar write-off will fund conservation of the Atlantic Forest of Alto Parana.

France also signed a debt-for-nature swap with Cameroon under which $25 million will be invested in people and in nature in the Congo River Basin.

Ladies and gentlemen, I hope in these remarks to show that the challenge of water flows right across the sustainable development agenda, from climate change to ecosystem management.

Other Water-Related Issues

I could have outlined thoughts on the real and important challenge of developing more water saving technologies, including recycling, and of the links between pollution and the reduced availability of water.

Also of concerns that the shift of industries from Europe and elsewhere in the developed world to Asia and north and southern Africa may be accompanied by lower pollution standards that may compromise water quality.

Perhaps I could have touched on water markets and permits and other similar mechanisms.

The debate about water footprints, and about virtual water and its import and export around the world, is also a fascinating and important one.

But I would like to leave you with a final thought which underlines how we need to focus our full intelligence and knowledge on the climate challenge, the water challenge and the challenge of sustainable development generally.

Life-cycle Assessment

There is currently a great deal talked about biofuels- some see them as a silver bullet in terms of combating global warming.

Others are alarmed at what they see as a new and added pressure on tropical forests; soils and peatlands and biodiversity such as the orangutans.

UNEP, with funding from governments and the European Commission, has just established the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management.

One of its first tasks is a full life-cycle assessment of biofuels.

To my mind, biofuels urgently need sustainability criteria so that consumers are reassured that biofuels produced in one way and in one country meet the highest environmental standards.

After being in Davos, I am keen to ask the new Panel to consider another factor, and that is water.

Why? Because according to a senior executive from a large multinational food company, it can take 1,000 litres of water to make one litre of biofuel.

By my calculation this is 250 times the daily drinking water needs of an individual.

Does this mean that we should swiftly ban biofuels?- no.

But it does mean that when we make choices and investment decisions on climate change, we should have full information on the implications of our decisions so we maximize the wider opportunities and minimize all potential pitfalls.

So that in cutting greenhouse gas emissions we not only work towards "climate neutrality" but also "water neutrality" and perhaps other forms of neutrality from "forest neutrality"; "biodiversity neutrality" and maybe even "soil and peatland neutrality" too.

Thank you


 © United Nations Environment Programme | privacy policy | terms and conditions |contacts