Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Goals for Safe Water Worldwide Face a Stubborn Data Problem

By Kate Zerrenner
safe water

More than 100 countries are poised to fall short of their goals to manage their water supplies sustainably by 2030, as set out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6). According to a new report by the World Meteorological Organization, current action needs to quadruple to reach the goal of providing universal access to safe water and hygiene. Further, countries must meet SDG6 while experiencing unprecedented water-related impacts from climate change.

Floods and droughts are among the barriers to safe water for all

So why is safe water proving to be an elusive goal for many countries? Lets start with the fact that since 2000, the world as has seen a significant increase in flood- and drought-related disasters, with every region affected. Flood-related disasters have increased by 134 percent, with Asian countries bearing the brunt. Meanwhile, drought-related disasters have increased by 29 percent, with African countries suffering the harshest impacts.

Between 1970 and 2019, the world saw over 11,000 climate-related disasters, causing economic losses of $3.6 trillion and over two million deaths. Droughts and floods are the deadliest weather-related events after storms. In 2020 alone, the world saw an 18 percent increase in flood-related deaths than the annual average. And between 2000 and 2019, drought affected nearly 1.5 billion people globally.

As countries continue to suffer from droughts and floods, more of them recognize the importance of a focus on securing safe water within their climate goals. In their report, the WMO notes that 79 percent of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) - the efforts laid out by each country to meet Paris Climate Agreement goals - have safe water as an adaptation priority. Further, virtually all SDGs relate to water in some way, even if it is not explicitly stated, since water is a cross-cutting factor of every sector.

Many NDCs include water-related actions in capacity building, forecasting, observing networks and data collection. A majority of countries lack the capacity to provide climate services for water and are often constrained by limited access to financing. These challenges are circular: Underdeveloped capacity and insufficient data increase risk for investors while these countries require funds to overcome these challenges. Some of these concerns are more prevalent in developing countries, but poor water data is an ongoing problem worldwide.

The dearth of reliable data also is a challenge to securing safe water

Inadequate and inconsistent data plague water systems across the spectrum, from utility leakage rates to groundwater levels and beyond. Hence the water sector is often referred to as data-rich, but information-poor. Consistent measuring and capacity for data collection and dissemination makes information sharing challenging. Further, the regulation of water exists at several levels from the hyper-local to national and sometimes super-national; and those regulatory frameworks are often inconsistent, which can lead to conflict.

With competing needs over essential water services, the scenario is ripe for legal, political and even physical conflict. It is a problem seen even in the U.S., as evidenced by the decades-long Tri-State Water Waters in the southeastern U.S. Experts in California have also noted that better data could help with drought management in the state.

Differences in capacity between jurisdictions further hamper effective conservation and regulatory action.

According to the WMO, 40 percent of member countries do not collect data for basic statistics, such as water levels and discharge. Lack of adequate data hampers both the effectiveness of climate solutions and early warning systems.

As a result, the ability to meet safe water targets will continue to be difficult if countries do not have a grasp on basic water data. The report notes that regional needs for data collection and management is a top priority in North and Central America, Africa, Europe and the southwestern Pacific, while it is within the top three priorities for South America and Asia.

In addition to having the best possible data, it is also essential to have effective data management. The development of consistent data collection and measurement across and between states, countries, and regions would help with understanding hydrological patterns and how they are affected by climate change. Results could include an easier path to sharing best practices and lessons learned between similar climates experiencing comparable water-related events. The data inconsistencies will further affect other sectors with which the water sector intersects, including agriculture, infrastructure, public health and energy.

Water data is vital to plan for adaptation and mitigation

While the WMO report notes the actions needed to be taken for countries to meet adaptation goals related to safe water, the sector also has an important role to play in mitigation. Water’s connection to the energy sector is often undercounted. Traditional fossil fuel- and nuclear-powered electricity require considerable amounts of water to generate electricity, as do some forms of renewable energy, including hydropower, geothermal and concentrated solar power. Conversely, the water sector requires significant amounts of energy to treat, move, and distribute water; the same goes for other water technologies such as desalination and water recycling.

The intersection of the water and energy sectors could be an important avenue to addressing climate change. Nevertheless, problems with data plague this intersection as well. The measurement of electricity is more straightforward than that of water, and data overall is better, which makes comparing the two difficult. Further, the two sectors do not speak the same language when it comes to data, creating obstacles to collaboration. Nevertheless, these obstacles are easily overcome with some effort, as seen when the two sectors engage with each other.

Improved data decreases risks to investors, which can enable financing to enter the water sector in more robust levels. It may at first appear to be a simple solution, but the inconsistency of capacity spins the problem round and round.

The bottom line is that the WMO’s report highlights that water stress and extreme events have plagued areas around the world and will continue to do so as climate change risks continue. Leaders recognize the need to improve data collection and management. Better communication across the sector to learn from other utilities, countries, and stakeholders could facilitate not only better data, but better solutions to prevent catastrophic damage from future water-related events.

Image credit: Amritanshu Sikdar via Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner