Emergencies of Scarcity and Fresh Water by Joe Cuthbertson

Joe Cuthbertson, Board Member, World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine, and member of the Resilience Thematic Group, has authored this guest post.

Disaster classifications traditionally limit water scarcity emergencies to an outcome of drought. However, a lack of supply infrastructure, poor water usage technology, population changes that influence demand, and urbanisation rates all can also cause such an emergency. These forces threaten community and public health and well-being, and warrant rethinking how one classifies water scarcity emergencies (1, 2). Such re-classification has implications for attaining Sustainable Development Goals, and resilience-building.

The threat of fresh water scarcity has been realised as recent crisis in major urban centres, and has provided a reminder to communities of our vulnerability in an increasingly urbanised world. Sustainable Development Goal Six is the provision and access to water and sanitation for all, yet whilst there is sufficient fresh water on the planet, water scarcity and increasing water competition for rural and urban poor is a predicted risk for many people (3). The recently released World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Risks Report has forecasted a two-thirds decrease in fresh water availability by 2050, and predicts that the pressure upon this scarce resource will intensify due to a projected increase in global demand (4).

Unfortunately fresh water scarcity in the Pacific is not a new problem. Small island states have reported decreasing access for the better part of the last decade, and in 2011 Tuvalu declared a state of emergency due to fresh water supply stress. A primary dependence upon rainfall and limited ground water supply, coupled with increasing urbanisation, has resulted in demand exceeding an already stressed supply. In parallel, a lack of fresh water and sanitation in Pacific Islands has resulted in upwards pressure on public health indicators such as infant mortality rate, which has soared to twice that of other South East Asian countries (5).

Climate change has exacerbated fresh water stress in Oceania by amplifying effects of sea level rise and drought. Rising sea levels, increasing frequency and intensity of tropical storms, and acidification of ocean water, are expected to make parts of Pacific Island nations uninhabitable. Greater-than-average sea level rise has already caused significant erosion and degraded habitable area in the Solomon islands and Nautambu Island. Sea level rise also causes salt water to infiltrate the water table and ground water supplies, rendering them unusable for populations (6).

The linkage of disaster risk reduction, sustainable development and climate change policy has been previously identified (7). At a community level, the use of nature-based solutions to reduce disaster risk and mitigate disaster impact have been recommended as effective tools (8). As new threats evolve that threaten the health status of communities, the application of resilience activities that mitigate their potential impact merits further exploration.

Achieving the primary target of Sustainable Development Goal Six – universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all, and the safeguarding of water resources for future communities – requires a coordinated effort, global will, and community engagement. Fresh water scarcity constitutes an emerging threat to health, and disaster classifications should recognize its multiple sources, including but not limited to drought.  This will facilitate the development of mitigation strategies that will promote resilience of populations to water scarcity.


  1. Burkle JFM. Future humanitarian crises: challenges for practice, policy, and public health. Prehospital and disaster medicine. 2010;25(3):191.
  2. Cuthbertson J, Professor Frank Archer E, Robertson AG, Rodriguez-Llanes J. Non-traditional health threats: Redefining the emergency management landscape2017. 40-5 p.
  3. Bedford R, Bedford C. International migration and climate change: a post-Copenhagen perspective on options for Kiribati and Tuvalu. Climate change and migration: South Pacific perspectives. 2010;89.
  4. Risks G, editor The Global Risks Report 2017. World Economic Forum; 2017 2017.
  5. Burkle FM. Global Health in Developed Countries or Global Public Health by Another Name. Conference presentation. The University of Hawaii Department of Public Health Sciences, East-West Center,  Honolulu, Hawaii, 3 November 2017.
  6. Bearne ADA. The Future of Historic Districts: A Model For Protecting Our Past From Climate Change. 2016.
  7. Kelman I. Climate change and the Sendai framework for disaster risk reduction. Int J Disaster Risk Sci. 2015;6(2):117-27.
  8. Srinivas H, Nakagawa Y. Environmental implications for disaster preparedness: lessons learnt from the Indian Ocean Tsunami. J Environ Manage. 2008;89(1):4-13.



Unless otherwise noted, the information presented herein does not represent IUCN’s or the Commission’s position on the matters presented.

One thought on “Emergencies of Scarcity and Fresh Water by Joe Cuthbertson

Add yours

  1. The discussion in this blog resonates well with the recent situation in Cape Town, a city which is in the process of untangling itself from the grip of a calamitous drought. The recent drought saw South Africa’s second-most populous city facing the prospect of having its taps running dry on “Day Zero”. With the recent declaration of the drought as a national disaster and the pushing back of Day Zero, Cape Town now needs to look beyond conventional approaches to develop nature-based solutions to the water crisis. My argument has always been that city managers can learn a lot from the management of water in conservation areas that possess attributes akin to the properties of modern cities. Both tend to be managed as closed systems without due regard to the external forces that shape their function and structure.

    Water management lessons from conservation areas suggest that efforts to build a climate resilient Cape Town city will certainly require nature-based interventions. Future prospects will be defined by the capacity of the city to transform rather than to adapt to emergency water situations. What is needed is transformative water security that is generative of change and emphasizes nature-based solutions.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: