The Future is Equal

Water dilemmas: The cascading impacts of water insecurity in a heating world

Climate-induced water insecurity poses one of the biggest threats to humanity and will lead to more hunger, disease and displacement

Oxfam water engineers are having to drill deeper, more expensive and harder-to-maintain water boreholes used by some of the poorest communities around the world, more often now only to find dry, depleted or polluted reservoirs.

Today, during World Water Week, Oxfam publishes the first of its series of reports, “Water Dilemmas”, about the growing water crisis, in large part driven by global heating from greenhouse gas emissions. The report describes how climate change will impact water security in different regions, leading to more hunger, disease and displacement.

Carlos Calderon, Humanitarian Advocacy and Partnerships Lead for Oxfam Aotearoa said, “This new Oxfam research is focused on the global Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WaSH) situation, but it paints a picture that illustrates the complexity of elements that, combined, will continue to increasingly affect women, girls, boys and men in the decades to come. Changing weather, poverty, inequality, gender-based violence, political instability and conflicts are impacting the availability and quality of adequate water systems. All governments, particularly those from rich countries, should responsively take action at a global scale. The clock is ticking. Our children will judge us for our actions today, or for the lack of them.”

Nafkote Dabi, Oxfam Global Climate Justice Lead, said: “While global warming is being caused by oil, coal and gas, its harm is fundamentally being experienced as a global water crisis. This poses one of the biggest threats to humanity and will lead to more hunger, more disease and more displacement, especially for the countries and communities least prepared for climate change.”

Oxfam in Africa Water and Sanitation Lead, Betty Ojeny, who is working on the frontline of the drought response in East Africa, said: “One in five boreholes we dig now in the region I work, ends up dry or with water that is unfit for humans to drink. We have to dig deeper wells, through baked soils, which means more expensive breakages. This is happening at a time when donor funding for water is declining.”

“We’re having to use expensive desalination technologies that are sometimes glitchy, especially in the more hostile terrains where we have to work. We’re seeing climate change biting now and these problems are only going to get worse,” Ojeny said.

Ojeny works in Oxfam’s biggest current humanitarian response in East Africa where over 32 million people are facing acute hunger and starvation because of a five-season drought, made worse by conflict and poverty. Areas elsewhere in the same region are being hit by destructive flash floods and unpredictable rains, devastating people’s crops and livelihoods.

“Global warming is increasing the frequency and severity of disasters, including floods and droughts, which will be hitting countries harder and more often in years to come. The huge lack of investment in strengthening water systems is leaving countries open to catastrophe,” Dabi said.

The report found that by 2040, East Africa could be hit by an 8 percent rise in precipitation, with a cycle of floods and droughts leading to a potentially catastrophic 30 percent rise in surface runoff. This washes away nutrients from exhausted soils, and destroys infrastructure. It says 50-60 million more people could be at risk of malaria by 2030.

It says the West Africa region will suffer similar problems as a result of this water crisis. Both regions are facing 8-15% more intense heatwaves and falls in labour productivity by 11-15%, amid mass migration, rising poverty and hunger, crop changes and livestock loss, and more water-driven conflicts.  

“Already today, because of droughts, many of Oxfam’s installed water systems are rendered obsolete as pastoralist communities are forced to migrate to look for new pasturelands. This is undermining the communal management of water, which is key for sustainability and enhancing people’s resilience,” Ojeny said.

“In South Sudan we already see flooding washing away sanitation facilities and submerging boreholes, rendering them useless. More water-borne diseases like cholera are putting immense pressure not only on our water and sanitation work, and also stretching our public health operations too,” she said.

By contrast, the report says across the Middle East region by 2040, rainfall will decrease markedly instead, as will water levels and river runoff, sparking worsening food security. Heatwaves will rise by 16% leading to a drop in labour productivity of 7%, with water prices rising with the demand.

Countries across Asia meanwhile will be affected more by sea-level rise, potentially over half a meter by 2100. Along with surface run-off and glacier melt, this will affect fresh groundwater aquifers, especially in coastal areas where hundreds of millions of people live. The report also signals more heatwaves in Asia (8%) and a decline in labour productivity, by 7%, leading to more poverty and migration. It says diseases like malaria and dengue could rise by a staggering 183%.

All this will have knock-on effects on people’s food sources and productivity, fuelling hunger. Oxfam calculates that in 10 of the world’s worst climate hotspots, chronic hunger is projected to rise by a third in 2050 as a result of climate change – that is 11.3 million more people going hungry than without climate change – a landslide derailing of the UN’s “zero hunger” target. 

The reports says that decades of underinvestment in water systems, poor water management, and erosion, pollution and overuse of subterranean aquifers are worsening this water crisis. Millions of already disadvantaged people are now left ill-equipped to face the harmful consequences of the climate crisis. Only 32% of the $3.8 billion global UN humanitarian appeals for water and sanitation was funded last year and countries most at risk of water insecurity are failing to invest in water infrastructure.

“The worst scenarios that the world needed to avoid have already begun. Under today’s emissions trajectories, billions of people face no safe future in the worsening water crisis, happening under such political nonchalance. Rich polluting nations must immediately and drastically cut their emissions, and fund water infrastructure in poor communities.”

“We are still able to alter course toward safety if we choose, but we must act fast. Governments need to fundamentally refocus their attention and investment into our water systems as an absolute policy priority. They must urgently meet the UN’s $114 billion-a-year ambition for the water, sanitation and hygiene sector, which will save lives today and impact virtually every other UN goal for 2030,” Dabi said.

Contact details

Please contact:

Rachel Schaevitz | Communications Manager |

Carlos Calderon | Humanitarian Lead |

Notes to Editor:

  • Read Oxfam’s “Water Dilemmas” report. The report builds on existing scientific literature and climate models, along with witnessed and anecdotal evidence, to highlight the impacts of climate-driven water insecurity on food insecurity, conflicts, displacement and migration, gender inequality and disease in four regions (Asia; Middle East; West Africa; Horn, Eastern and Central Africa or HECA).
  • For decades Oxfam has supported millions of highly vulnerable people with life-saving water and sanitation systems, in partnership with authorities, local partners and communities around the world. Oxfam is a leading agency in the humanitarian and development water and sanitation sector.
  • Last year, Oxfam looked at 10 of the world’s worst climate hotspots – Somalia, Haiti, Djibouti, Kenya, Niger, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Madagascar, Burkina Faso, and Zimbabwe – which have repeatedly been battered by extreme weather over the last two decades – and found that their hunger more than doubled in just six years. The 10 worst climate hotspots were calculated looking at countries with the highest number of extreme weather-related UN appeals since 2000, where climate was classified as a “major contributor” to these appeals. Source: Oxfam’s “Footing the Bill” report May 2022 and Oxfam’s “Hunger in a Heating World” report Sept 2022.
  • Projections of the population at risk of hunger in the 10 countries by 2050 with and without climate change are from the International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) International Model for Policy Analysis of Commodities and Trade (IMPACT). Globally, IFPRI projects that about 70 million more people will be at risk of hunger because of climate change in 2050, including 28 million additional people in East and Southern Africa. Source: 2022 IFPRI Report: Climate Change and Food Systems
  • Only 32% of the $3.8 billion global humanitarian appeal for the WASH sector for 2022 was funded. Source: UN OCHA Financial Tracking Service.    
  • The UN SDG6 states that meeting the water, sanitation and hygiene 2030 target requires increasing progress six-fold
  • In East Africa, over 32 million people across Ethiopia (20.1 million), Kenya (5.4 million) and Somalia (6.6 million) are estimated to be experiencing crisis or worse levels of hunger. Source: Ethiopia’s Humanitarian Response Plan for 2023 , Kenya’s Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) March-May 2023 report, and Somalia’s IPC report April- June 2023