‘Vampiric overuse’ of water is draining Earth’s precious lifeblood, warns UN chief

Since 2000, the number and duration of droughts have risen 29pc, the World Meteorological Organisation said. Photo: Wladmir Bulgar/Getty Images

Danny Halpin

Water is being overlooked in climate planning and funding, scientists have said, despite half the world’s population facing acute water stress by 2030.

At the UN Water Conference in New York, the first since 1977, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said “vampiric overuse” and pollution are draining the “precious lifeblood” while climate change is “wreaking havoc” on the natural water cycle.

Scientists believe there needs to be a much stronger focus on water as a climate issue, which they said has been missing even from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports – considered to be the most definitive scientific assessments of climate risks.

Speaking to Watershed Investigations, a British team of investigative journalists, Dr Stefan Uhlenbrook, director of hydrology at the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), said: “In all the climate negotiations, it has been for too long a blind spot.

“Last year at Cop, the hydrology community was celebrating that water was mentioned in the outcome statement.

“But it took 27 Cops to finally get water into the outcome statement, for all its importance.”

Dr Rajendra Singh, known as the waterman of India for his part in reviving an ecosystem in the desert state of Rajasthan by creating thousands of rainwater ponds, believes water conservation is unpopular because it is not lucrative.

He told Watershed: “No one is interested in water conservation, in agro-ecological climate diversity, in efficient use of water, because there is not a lot of money in it.”

He said he tried to get water on to the IPCC’s agenda in the mid-2000s when Rajendra Pachauri was chairman.

“I told him in 2005, 2006, and 2007 that water is climate and climate is water,” he explained.

In the UK, the Environment Agency has warned that demand for water will outstrip supply in 20 years unless changes are made.

The National Drought Group has also said the UK is one hot, dry spell away from drought conditions.

Worldwide, almost three-quarters of all disasters in the last 20 years have been water-related, according to the UN, with floods and droughts affecting over three billion people, killing more than 166,000 and costing $700bn (€650bn).

Since 2000, flood-related disasters have increased by 134pc and the number and duration of droughts have increased by 29pc, the WMO said.

In Malawi, more than 1,000 people have lost their lives and half a million have been displaced since cyclone Freddy began devastating southern Africa last month, the country’s minister for water and sanitation, Abida Sidik Mia, told delegates in New York.

And in Somalia, 43,000 people are thought to have died from drought last year while tens of thousands more remain at risk.

Steffi Lemke, the German minister for environment, believes solutions lie in wetland conservation and renaturalisation.

She told Watershed: “Climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution are the existential crises of our time. Sustainable water resources management is at the same time key to solving these crises.”

Wetlands and peatlands are major carbon sinks but lose this ability if they become drained, polluted or damaged.

They are considered the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems and are breeding grounds for 40pc of the world’s plant and animal species. Yet over 85pc of the planet’s wetlands have been lost, according to the UN.

A recent study in Nature found that more than 90pc of Ireland's wetlands are gone.