By Thalif Deen
US Secretary of State John Kerry drew attention to the "record number" of extreme weather events the world is experiencing today.
Given the proximity of the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which will take place from November 30 to December 11 in the French capital, Kerry warned that in the South Pacific entire islands are threatened by rising sea levels.
Southeastern Brazil is experiencing the worst drought in 80 years. And California, the United States, is experiencing the worst drought in a century, in addition to wildfires.
In Malawi there are record floods. And entire towns in the Arctic are in danger, Kerry said at the Indiana University College of Global and International Studies on 15 this month.
Despite the US official's warning, the role of water remains a relatively neglected topic in the run-up to COP21, more focused on carbon dioxide emissions.
Louise Whiting, an analyst with the British independent organization WaterAid, told IPS that the world's poorest population is the most affected by climate change, which is lived mainly through water.
Whiting pointed out that the problem of water is expressed when there is excess - due to floods and rising sea levels -, when it is missing - due to droughts -, or because it appears when it is not expected, as happens with unforeseen rains due to the alteration of weather patterns, or because its quality is not good, because it is salty or contaminated.
The more than 650 million poor and marginalized people who depend on unsafe water sources will be increasingly vulnerable as those sources are highly exposed to climate-related threats, he said.
The analyst recalled that floods can contaminate tube wells, and that natural sources of fresh water can be contaminated with seawater.
In the run-up to COP21, WaterAid calls on the international community to make water security - including first and foremost access to water, sanitation and hygiene - a priority in helping poor countries adapt to the climate change.
Water security improves people's health, education and economic stability, and makes them more resilient to climate change, Whiting said.
"We must also ensure that money flows from the people who caused the problem to those least able to deal with it," he urged.
In 2010, the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution that recognizes water and sanitation as a human right.
And the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has reiterated that safe drinking water and sanitation are essential to reduce poverty, for sustainable development and to meet the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in December.
However, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by heads of state and government around the world on September 25, also include water and sanitation as key elements in the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda.
In 2030, the world forum hopes to achieve universal and equitable access to drinking water, improve water quality by reducing pollution, minimize the emission of chemicals and hazardous materials, and significantly increase the efficiency of water use in all sectors, among other objectives.
WaterAid will focus on improving poor communities' access to clean water, as well as decent toilets, Whiting said.
In “our work we increase the water storage capacity and strengthen the supervision of the supply… so that droughts can be detected earlier. Where floods are a problem, for example in Bangladesh, we strengthen infrastructure when necessary, and we also help communities come together and assess their own vulnerability so that they can demand better services from their governments, ”he explained.
WaterAid is also helping 29 towns in West Africa cope with water scarcity and improve their resilience to climate threats, in particular by helping to improve the way they manage their own water resources.
In Burkina Faso, where the dry season lasts up to eight months a year, many towns have precarious stocks. Climate change will only exacerbate their situation, he warned.
WaterAid applies a combination of additional wells, sand dikes and improvements to existing wells, in addition to training local people to become experts on the subject of water.
These experts, Whiting said, are revolutionizing the ability of communities to control their own supply by measuring water levels and monitoring rainfall, in order to anticipate threats and detect emerging patterns, so they know how much water can be used and at what time of day.
They are also contributing that data to state monitoring systems, in order to help build a more systematic national picture of weather patterns across the country.
"Nature doesn't care if you are a poor subsistence farmer in Burkina Faso or an accountant in California," observed Whiting.
“Climate change will affect us all. However, it will have a greater impact on those who contributed the least to the problem ”, he specified.
The rulers who will meet in Paris in December must commit to provide the necessary technical and financial support to help poor countries adapt to the changes that lie ahead, he recommended.
According to UN data, some 2.6 billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources since 1990, but 663 million still lack such access, and at least 1.8 billion people turn to sources of water contaminated with fecal matter.
Between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of the world's population using an improved source of drinking water rose from 76 to 91 percent.
Water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of the world's population, and the UN expects that proportion to increase.
This article is part of a media project of IPS North America, Global Cooperation Council and Devnet Tokyo.
Translated by Álvaro Queiruga