Water stress is increasingly driving migration around the world, but efforts to adapt to worsening shortages could help, a new U.N. study suggests.
Water stress — not just shortages, but water-quality issues — is expected to drive more people from their communities permanently and cause rapid growth of cities, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Two-thirds of the world's people suffer some water scarcity for part of each year, with communities dependent on agriculture affected the most, said FAO director-general Jose Graziano da Silva in a video message for the 8th World Water Forum in Brazil.
Finding ways to adapt to that reality — rather than simply responding to disasters caused by water shortages — is the most effective way to deal with the problem, the FAO said.
Water use has increased six-fold worldwide over the past century, said the study, which drew on a survey of more than 180 research papers on water scarcity and migration issues.
As climate change brings increasingly irregular rainfall, worsening droughts and higher temperatures, water scarcity will likely increase, particularly as demand for agricultural water remains high, the study said.
Investment in preparing for water crises — such as adopting more water-smart agricultural practices — could cut the need for people to migrate, the study said, although drawing a clear link between water scarcity and migration remains complicated.
Experts believe drought played a role in the early stages of the Syrian conflict when 1.5 million farmers headed to cities as the country suffered its worst drought on record, said Charles Iceland of the World Resources Institute, a research body.
Drought was clearly not the major factor, he said, but instead exerted an additional pressure alongside political and social issues.
He said much of the world would face water scarcity by 2040 as populations and temperatures rise. Combating that would require changes including in agriculture, such as adopting water-saving drip irrigation, he said.
About 70 percent of freshwater used each year goes to agriculture, experts have estimated.