Women in Raha village wait to use the communal tap, that is the only tap.

Waterless: climate change and Covid-19 fueled water shortages in the Global South

While the world focused on hygiene and sanitation to tackle Covid-19, climate change and the pandemic restrictions left thousands without water. This is the story of two communities that suffered this global problem in different ways.
While the world focused on hygiene and sanitation to tackle Covid-19, climate change and the pandemic restrictions left thousands without water. This is the story of two communities that suffered this global problem in different ways.

From the top of the Himalayas to the countryside of Argentina, climate change is drying up water sources.

Springs, wells and streams no longer carry the same amount of this resource that it once had. And for rural communities that live in these places, this means their lifestyle is endangered.

In Dolpo, Nepal, herders of yak keep moving from place to place to find water sources that have not dried up, and lately they migrate further away from their homes. 

For the farmers in Cruz del Eje, Argentina, this is not an option: they wait for help from the government or for the miracle of rain, which is becoming scarce every year. 

A team of Climate Tracker reporters analyzed water shortages in local communities from two different countries: Nepal and Argentina. These countries are extremely vulnerable to the climate crisis, especially in rural communities.

Lack of access to water came in different forms whether it was drought or spring water drying up. But the two had in common an alteration in the natural conditions of local communities, driven by climate change.

Snow melted faster in Nepal, forcing herders to lack water all year; while a lack of rain in Argentina drove farmers in search for new resources. Covid-19 restrictions intensified water shortages in these rural communities.

The United Nation (UN) recognizes access to water and sanitation as a right that needs to be given equally, sufficient, safe, accessible, affordable and without any discrimation.

Although there are still communities that live without a safe water source, climate change is exacerbating the problems that existed before.

In 2020, around 1 in 4 people lacked safely managed drinking water, according to a report by the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene, which is run by both the World Health Organization and Unicef.

According to the JMP report, only in the rural areas of Nepal, about 2.44 million people do not have access to an improved water source. In Latin America, 25% of the population lacks a safely managed water source, which means an improved source that is accessible on premises and free from contamination. 


As the average global temperature exceeds 1C, climate change is amplifying the water crisis by affecting the availability and quality of water, according to the World Water Development Report. This, in turn, is affecting the basic human rights of local communities.

For the future, the estimates seem dim: by 2050, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas, according to a UN report.


Wider inequalities behind being waterless

The Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis both amplified already existing inequalities in water access for rural communities.

The United Nations Secretariat states that “Covid-19 will not be stopped without access to safe water for people living in vulnerability”, as sanitation and hygiene services are “fundamental to fighting the virus”. 

But the current situation is that not everyone can afford something as basic as hand soap.  The latest estimate from the JMP report said that 3 out of 10 people worldwide do not have a basic hand-washing facility.

For Kate Medlicott, from sanitation and wastewater at WHO, Covid-19 changed the patterns in which societies used these services. “There was a cultural change in demand and provision”, she explained. 

Demand is a key issue in times of crisis. The UN 2020 Climate Change and Water report asserted that over the last 100 years, global water use has increased by a factor of six.

Water demand continues to grow steadily at a rate of about 1% per year, as a result of increasing population, economic development and shifting consumption patterns, the report says. 

Now add climate change to the mix. The document added that “combined with a more erratic and uncertain supply, climate change will aggravate the situation of currently water-stressed regions, and generate water stress in regions where water resources are still abundant today”. 

Water crisis

Medlicott said that the major impacts of climate change —like extreme weather events, sea level rise, increasing temperature— put sanitation and water services at risk, as current systems were not sustainably built.

IPCC reports increase in 1.5 C temperature, results in severe increased droughts, as hotter climate can result in drier soils, less precipitations and fast evaporations, this can  seriously impact the vulnerable communities with projection of water scarcity. 

Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe, according to a recent report by the UN climate science panel. 

The report highlights “unequivocal” evidence of climate extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence.

With every additional increment of global warming, changes in extremes continue to become larger, the report adds. For example, every additional 0.5°C of global warming increases the intensity and frequency of hot extremes, as well as agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions.

Reaching universal water coverage in 2030 will require a quadrupling progress in drinking water services, safely managed sanitation services, and basic hygiene services, stated the JMP report. 

Water access actions need to take into account inequality, as eight out of ten people without basic water services live in rural areas, experts argued. 

Medlicott said governments have full responsibility to take clean water and sanitation for the most vulnerable communities.

As the Global South suffers through climate change and Covid-19, these stories from different countries tell the tale of one universal story: rural communities will be on the frontier of climate change, with current inequalities becoming wider.