Why should water be at the heart of climate adaptation policies?

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Beneficiaria del proyecto Metro Agua en Colón, Panamá, rodeada de recipientes de agua.
In Latin America today, about 150 million people already live in water scarce areas. Photo: World Bank


I get out of my apartment in a busy city of Latin America and see a hose in the sidewalk pouring water. Someone forgot to switch off the tap after flushing the sidewalk with potable water. People don’t seem to care because water here is not metered. I take a taxi to reach the offices of the water sector stakeholders to discuss the results of a study on “Why Water Matters” that we are about to release. On my way there, I cross different city areas, urban rivers highly polluted, slums, industries, open sewers visible from my cab and, flooded areas due to the latest intense rains.

At the meeting, one of the points more contested by some participants were discussions around the myth that “women and girls taking hours to fetch water is something that happens in Africa, but not in Latin America and the Caribbean.” I then understood the importance of raising the awareness of the impact of poor water services in isolated, often indigenous rural communities and peri-urban areas in this continent, and the strong need for more water sector investments to tackle this problem. On my way back to the office, I found myself thinking of some of the critical water security challenges are in the region.

Latin America has the highest water endowment per capita in the world. Yet access to safely managed water supply services is still missing for 25% of the population.  Fetching water is a burden that often falls to women, indigenous, afro descendants, and young girls, especially in rural areas. Having to walk long distances, sometimes more than three hours if we consider the increasingly frequent droughts, to collect and provide water for their families negatively affect their quality of life as they end up having less time to dedicate to work and education.

As the water supply and demand adapt to the ever-changing conditions in the region, climatic and non-climatic shocks continue to threaten the growing population, forcing millions back into poverty and feeding into the current crisis of mounting inequality and inefficiency. While policies have made significant progress in securing water resources for the rapidly growing population and across economic sectors, climate change is disrupting the entire water cycle, threatening the region’s socio-economic gains. The region’s watersheds are degrading quickly, urban rivers are being polluted, and recurrent floods and droughts are resulting in millions of USD in damages every year.

In Latin America today, about 150 million people already live in water scarce areas , corresponding to 23% of the population, and these numbers are expected to increase with LAC’s annual population growth of 0.9 percent. Thus, water endowment belies the socioeconomic reality, and water insecurity reveals the region’s high service access gaps. This unequal allocation of water is often the result of weak water governance systems throughout the region, contributing to an increase in social unrest throughout history and in recent times.

On World Water Day the World Bank’s report Why Water Matters: Resilient, Inclusive, and Green Growth in Latin America presents the evidence to convey why water deserves to be prioritized at higher levels of nations’ political agendas. Our report demonstrates that water should be at the core of climate change adaptation and mitigation policies, as more countries commit to accelerating and ensuring access to water services in a sustainable manner. Improving the efficiency in water management and addressing the access gaps in marginalized peri-urban and rural communities would also promote inclusion and human development.

Water is the Key

During these unprecedented times of deep economic crisis, high inflation, and peak in food prices, building the resilience of the water sector is key to sustaining economic sectors and boosting food security. It would be important to strengthen the resilience to climatic and non-climatic shocks such as water-related extreme events and COVID 19 pandemic.

Latin American countries should develop their hydraulic infrastructure and increase their water storage capacity by retaining water in different ways.  This could be done by applying nature-based solutions and circular economy principles which would also benefit the environment, biodiversity, and human well-being.    

The region also needs to work on the main institutional challenges that go beyond building physical infrastructure. Many countries continue to struggle to implement a robust water governance system that influences the overall management of water resources. This could be addressed by setting up basic water resources management institutions, modernizing existing institutional frameworks to improve technical autonomy, accountability, transparency, and empowering and strengthening river basin institutions.

Authorities recognize the need to address efficiency gaps since water services rely heavily on public funds spent on operation and maintenance rather than on service expansion. It would be critical to improve the water and sanitation utilities’ operational efficiencies, and service performance of irrigation and drainage.

Call to Action

This report is a call to action to reinforce that the abovementioned challenges need to be reassessed urgently not only at national levels, but also on a regional scale. The water sector in Latin America requires a higher-level stakeholder engagement and coordination to evaluate and develop tailored strategies, in particular also for transboundary waters between countries in large strategic basins. As many of the challenges mentioned above are of regional nature, this approach will promote more active incorporation of regional players such as multilateral institutions and development agencies to join efforts towards this critical water security agenda by enhancing regional information and databases, aligning support to countries to improve their governance systems, and enabling innovative ways of financing.  




Alexander Serrano

Water Resources Management Specialist

Victor Vazquez Alvarez

Senior Water and Sanitation Specialist

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