The impact of extreme drought is evident in this 2011 USGS photo of O.C. Fisher Lake near San Angelo, Texas. (Photo by Travis Dowell, U.S. Geological Survey)

Water Scarcity Increasing Populations' Vulnerability, UN Report Shows

Every country faces growing problems of scarce water, poor sanitation, and soil erosion, the 2014 Human Development Report states.

Global risks associated with climate change appear to be intensifying, increasing droughts in arid regions and making extreme storms even stronger, the 2014 Human Development Report published by the UN Development Programme states. "It will also lead to rising sea levels, flooding, water scarcity in key regions, the migration or extinction of plant and animal species, and the acidification of oceans," this comprehensive report predicts.

Recently released in Tokyo by UNDP, the report is titled "Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience." It includes tables listing health indices for children and adults in countries worldwide. One table addressing freshwater withdrawals, unsafe water, and unimproved sanitation and poor hygiene lists dozens of countries where these are major problems; countries including Niger, Nigeria, Yemen, Zimbabwe, Haiti, Ethiopia, and Uganda are among them.

However, every country faces growing problems of scarce water, poor sanitation, soil erosion, the report states. According to the UNDP Multidimensional Poverty Index, almost 1.5 billion people in 91 developing countries are living in poverty with overlapping deprivations in health, education, and living standards. The report examines the risks posed by natural or human-induced disasters and crises and offers strategies and examples of ways some countries are addressing them.

"Setbacks are not inevitable. While every society is vulnerable to risk, some suffer far less harm and recover more quickly than others when adversity strikes," said UNDP Administrator Helen Clark. "By addressing vulnerabilities, all people may share in development progress and human development will become increasingly equitable and sustainable."

It recommends universal access to basic social services, especially health and education, and a commitment to full employment. The report includes a commentary on the dangers posed by climate change, written by Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While the report says there are grave risks to all countries, it may be most damaging to developing countries: "Between 2000 and 2012 more than 200 million people, most of them in developing countries, were hit by natural disasters every year, especially by floods and droughts. The 2011 Human Development Report showed how continuing failure to slow the pace of global warming could jeopardize poverty eradication, because the world's poorest communities are the most vulnerable to rising temperatures and seas and to other consequences of climate change."

Discussing health risks, the report notes that paying for health care has become a major cause of impoverishment for the poor and even the middle class in India, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the accelerating spread of malaria and tuberculosis, the rapid spread of dengue and swine flu, and increasing threats of bioterrorism are increasing vulnerability worldwide.

"Changes in rainfall and temperature will be felt most acutely by the people who depend on natural systems for growing crops and raising livestock and by those who depend on them for food. In particular, farmers without access to irrigation will most immediately feel the impacts of unpredictable rainfall. Smallholder farmers in South Asia are particularly vulnerable—India alone has 93 million small farms. These groups already face water scarcity. Some studies predict crop yields up to 30 percent lower over the next decades, even as population pressures continue to rise," it states.

Khalid Malik, director of the Human Development Report Office, explained how the 2014 report differs from the previous year's report. "The 2013 report was about how so many more people are doing better, particularly over the last decade. This year's report is also trying to look at those who have not done so well. And also look at how the world itself is getting a little bit more fractious, a little less predictable," he said. "There is a growing sense of unease as if somehow people are not in control of their own destinies. It's both at the country level and it's also on the global level. And this report tries to dig into those issues of vulnerability and then try to understand what policies, what measures are needed to make people and societies more resilient."