Analysis: UN World Water Development Report

Reading time: 8-10 minutes.

UN World Water Development Report 2020 or UN-WWDR, compiled by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in association with the inter-agency mechanism on water and cleanliness issues called the UN-Water, was released online on 22nd March, 2020, which is observed as International World Water Day every year. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, the launch event which was scheduled to be held in Geneva on 23rd March, 2020 has been postponed.

UN-WWDR is the official, theme-based “flagship report” of the United Nations Organization that engages in analysis of the state and conditions of the global freshwater resources, projecting an extensive and authentic representation of the same. Its primary objective is to provide an apparatus to decision-makers for the preparation and execution of the sustainable water policies. Originally conceived as a triennial report in 1998 by the Sixth Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development that recognised the necessity for a regular and periodic evaluation of the international freshwater resources, the first report was released in the year 2003.

For the first four editions, the report was published triennially when in 2012, the decision was taken for the revision and improvisation of the report, making it more fact-intensive, concise yet all comprehensive in nature with a focussed thematic approach to its readers. The annual publication of the report commenced from 2014 and is continuing till date.

Significance of World Water Development Report 2020

The World Water Development Report 2020, titled and themed “Water and Climate Change”, focuses on the impact of sustainable conservation and management of the limited global water resources on tackling climate change issues faced by the entire world. There is a direct correlation of climate change with water, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Water is an essential need of human beings, and its unceasing exploitation because of factors emanating out of climate change crisis can lead to grave deprivation of “basic human rights to water and sanitation” for possibly billions of people worldwide. The rapid changes which are been observed in the water cycle poses jeopardies for “energy production, food security, human health, economic development and poverty reduction, thus seriously jeopardizing the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Keeping in perspective the aforementioned issues, the UN-WWDR 2020 emphasizes on the difficulties, prospects and probable responses to climate change, “in terms of adaptation, mitigation and improved resilience that can be addressed through improving water management.”

Salient features of the report

The major and key takeaways, based on the “Main Messages” of UN-WWDR 2020 released simultaneously, can be enlisted as follows:

  1. Water is regarded as “climate connector” that facilitates enhanced association and harmonization across major goals for “sustainable development (2030 Agenda and its SDGs), climate change (Paris Agreement) and disaster risk reduction (Sendai Framework).” The report proposes that the interlinkage of these three could help incorporate the climate change issues into other SDGs.
  2. Major emphasis has been given on the importance of corresponding policies of “Adaptation and Mitigation” for the supervision and reduction in the perils of climate change through water. Greenhouse gas emissions could actually be decreased by the accurate implementation of “water efficiency measures” which have an unswerving impact on energy savings.
  3. It has been well accepted that water-related plans are mostly included merely as policy statements or wide strategies, and are often kept out of the Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs which are submitted by individual countries in pursuance of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
  4. The gross insufficiency of financial funds for the water intervention plans such as those for management, sanitation and supply and the necessity of increased attention from different governments across the world is well recognised in the report. In the ‘Main Messages’ released for the report, it is mentioned that “although there are significant sources available from the Climate Change funds, most of that has been earmarked for mitigation, and has thus not been available for financing water interventions which have generally been considered from an adaptation perspective.”
  5. The need of technological innovation has been recognised in the report, which proposes the promotion of advanced research and development and speeding up the execution of the already existing knowledge and technology across the world. Scientific technologies like satellite-based earth observation and remote sensing, when supported with “national statistics, field-based observations and numerical simulation models” can greatly contribute to the comprehensive assessment of climate change impacts related to water.
  6. The report embraced the measures of adaptation and mitigation through water as a “triple win proposal” as firstly, it helps contribute towards the achievement of SDGs. Secondly, there is an explicit addressal of the issues of climate change. Lastly, there is a discussion on the protection of basic human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, and it is valuable for the maintainable supervision of water resources.

WWDR on the situation of India

According to the World Water Development Report ’20, by the year 2050, more than 52% of the human population will be living in water-stressed regions. The worst affected would be the mountainous, tropical, island and extreme north-located nations. India, home to more than a dozen Himalayan states and bisected into two halves by the Tropic of Cancer should definitely be alarmed with the findings of the report. The report also estimated the extreme impoverishment of a 100 million people by 2030. India Spend, an India based “agency of record”, reported in 2017 that how over 7 states in the country are already affected by the erratic variations in the rain cycle, and this is impacting industries like fisheries and agriculture. It was also reported by them in December 2019 that out of 181 countries, India is the fifth-most susceptible nation to the dangers of climate change.

Regional cooperation has been mentioned in the report, particularly by analysis of NDCs of various countries. As far as India’s NDCs are concerned, they do contain references for improvisation of wastewater treatment and ramping up of water supply to urban areas.

According to the report, in the last 100 years, there has been a six-fold increase in the water consumption levels across the world, and there is a steady one percent increment in the same per year. Additionally, it was also reported that how poor water management aggravates the climate change problems. The report also estimated that across the world, approximately 80% to 90% of wastewater is discharged untreated into the environment.

The tropical zones are predicted to be affected the worst in future because of these climate change issues since majority of the developing world countries are located here. These countries, with their maximum population being economically poor and vulnerable and the absence of suitable responsive mechanism, are most vulnerable. The effects of climate change on the accessibility of water resources over time affect the impoverished excessively through its impact on sectors like “agriculture, fisheries, health and natural disasters”, the report noted. Amongst these, the main sufferers are women and girls, who get to face discrimination in the access to water, cleanness and hygiene, widening gender disparities and risking their health, well‐being, incomes and education.

Abou Amani, the coordinator of the report observed, “Women in developing countries play a key role in water management. Women will be among those people who will be impacted by the issue of water stress.” In another study undertaken by IndiaSpend in March 2020, similar results were obtained in the Himalayan towns across four countries, including India. The UN report also added that the indigenous people and tribes are also quite susceptible to effects of climate change as their systems, totally adaptable to environment, in all probability will not be able to resist the external damages.

While financing has been accepted as a key feature in this year’s report, it was well acknowledged by Amani, “Developing countries are facing issues related to lack of investment. They have the lack of means to mobilise the resources.” India, being a developing country, is privy to all these vulnerabilities and should strive for better, far-fetched and cutting edged policies and take up this cause with more seriousness.

Schemes regarding water resources in India

The apex policy ‘think tank’ of the Government of India, NITI Aayog, has already acknowledged that the country is in the midst of a major water crisis and if precautionary steps are not taken with earnestness, the demand for drinkable water will exceed its supply by the year 2030. Moreover, the Think Tank in its Composite Water Management Index 2.0 released in 2019 sensitised about the surge in excessive and inefficient usage of water resources. As a response to the mounting water crisis in the country, a combined Ministry of Jal Shakti was introduced by the NDA-2 government in May 2019. The government also focuses on “Nal se Jal” scheme which intends to deliver potable water to every rural household by the year 2024.

The proposal to revise and update the National Water Policy with crucial amendments in the water governance structure and regulatory framework has been passed by the government. The last NWP or National Water Policy was introduced by the UPA-II government in the year 2012. After 8 years, there are definitely substantial changes which need to be catered to and “prioritization of the water usage needs to be defined”. There are also plans to establish a National Bureau of Water Use Efficiency under the new NWP.

Analysing the recent schemes rolled out by the present regime, it can be concluded that the government of the day is majorly focusing on ground water and rain water harvesting. Government of India has enunciated Atal Bhujal Yojana (Atal Jal), a Rs. 6000 Crore Central Sector Scheme, for “sustainable management of ground water resources with community participation in water stressed blocks of Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh”.

NITI Aayog in 2018 also released a “Strategy for New India @75” which enlisted and elucidated the objectives of 2022-23. In the same document, the section on “water resources” laid down the objectives “to facilitate water security so as to safeguard suitable availability of water for life, agriculture, economic development, ecology and environment.” However, the document was a failure because there was not much novelty and it was a mere repetition of already failed ideas and did not recognise the key priority areas.

Similarly, Jan Shakti Ministry has got limited role to play when it comes to handling of the water crisis situation in the country without the participation of the people. The Groundwater (Sustainable Management) Bill, 2017, which was drafted by the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, has completely gone off the table and is forgotten. What’s required for tackling India’s water issues are the already prevailing knowledge, requisite technology and current funds. NITI Aayog has prescribed only an extension of past failed policies. There is a need for India’s water establishment to accept that the strategy pursued so far has not worked. Only then can a realistic vision emerge.


As Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has rightly observed, “Water does not need to be a problem – it can be part of the solution [to the climate crisis]. Water can support efforts to both reduce greenhouse gases and adapt to climate change.”

This is the general pervasive rationale present throughout the entire World Water Development Report of the present year. It aptly points out the requirement for investing concerted efforts to address rising water stress and enhancing the efficiency of water usage in sectors like agriculture and industries. It delves into the aspect of regional cooperation and plans out the methods by which different continents and geographical blocs of the world can contribute to the cause. The report does not only merely propose a namesake argument about the importance of science and technology in water management issues but also suggests methods to boost the advantages practically.

More than anything, it calls for the inevitability of adequate investments and funding for the suitable implementation of the proposals offered. In the process, the possibility of human rights violations and the impact of possible events arising out of climate change convulsions on the developing, poor economies has also been appropriately represented in the report.  In and all, it offers pragmatic solutions and showcases a comprehensive association of both the burning issues of global interest that are there to vex the world for the coming decades. 

Author: Dhawal Srivastava from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Patiala.

Editor: Sweksha from Law Centre-II, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.

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