Global Water Issues and Hydrological Responses

Water is a prerequisite of life, a support to sustainable development and one of the greatest global risks. Flood and drought are common water-related risks. Nonetheless, they deserve special attention as water scarcity and mismanagement, especially in transboundary catchments, heighten the potential for conflict. Water issues can intensify societal and environmental, as well as economic and financial, stressors. Yet, the complex natural hydrological cycle is still only partially understood. A plethora of diverse public and private users could benefit from hydrological services, however, the hydrological, meteorological and climatological communities only support a relatively small number of users. The WMO Constituent Body reform offers the best opportunity to expand these services and better respond to global risks.

WMO is uniquely positioned and recognized at the United Nations technical agency for weather, climate and operational hydrology. The expertise within the WMO Commission of Hydrology (CHy) supports Members in their developments of solutions for disaster risk reduction, agriculture, ecosystems managements and restoration, navigation, hydropower and transboundary water management.  The Commission also promotes operational research aiming for a better understanding of hydrological systems.


Fragmented services

Service provision in the water sector is extremely fragmented. This is true at the national level for administration, science, research and operations responsibilities. But it is also reflected in the multi-faceted community of regional, international and intergovernmental water-related entities – including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), research associations, programmes and United Nations organizations.

These providers support water use and users with specific requirements, including: 

  • Real-time management of flood and drought events and integrated flood management, including inundation mapping
  • Integrated water management in national and transboundary catchments
  • Civil engineering for design of infrastructure
  • Agriculture, drainage and irrigation schemes and management
  • Ecosystem management, such as wetlands
  • Design and management of hydropower systems
  • Design and management of fluvial transport
  • Climate studies, trend analysis, decision support systems.


WMO hydrological priorities

At WMO, the main focus is on responding to global challenges. These are framed, amongst others, in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, in particular SDG-6 on water, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on the Protection and use Of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lake. In line with these, the WMO Executive Council (EC) Task Force on Water has identified several priorities in the water area.

These include the timely communication of regional and national flood forecasts and warnings through national authorities to all people at risk, which requires establishing and updating inundation maps with safety measures and remaining risks identified. Members also need to be equipped for drought by implementing and updating drought risk management with necessary data and information with support from regional centres. WMO must also prioritizes hydro-climate and meteorological data in support of the food security agenda by sustainably matching future water demand for human consumption and irrigation with water availability and potential storage and by providing advice for optimizing rain-fed agriculture.

The EC Task Force, noting the role of WMO as the international authority with expertise on the generation of high-quality hydrological data and corresponding information products and services, emphasized the need for WMO to keep ensuring such services and support to its Members. WMO is also to prioritize maintenance and improvement of monitoring systems for all elements associated with operational hydrology1around the globe. This is essential to produce information that optimizes the efficiency of existing and future services, policies and political decision-making at the local, regional and global level.

The EC Task Force also underlined that WMO needed to prioritize sustainable development through the generation of hydrological information in support all water-dependent sectors for optimal operational resource management. In addition, the Task Force pointed to the role of WMO in resolving concerns about water quality degradation and need to permanently monitor surface and ground water to ensure its quality and the application of corrective actions.

Survery Survey


Core principles and conditions

The EC Task Force went on to identify a core set of principles that would enable the Organization to achieve its hydrology priorities. Primary among these, a WMO foundation principle, is free and open access to public and private high-quality hydrological data and information for all. In addition, related disciplines, data, models and risk management systems across all scales need to be inter-operable and connected to improve analysis and optimization capabilities. The full potential of the digital revolution must also be used to improve science, operation and communication. Innovation and technology should be applied to improve established systems for knowledge preparation and delivery and to develop new sources of information. Sustainable high priority public interest hydrological services urgently need development. This would require defining roles and responsibilities, information sharing and implementing sustainable financing. New hydrological data-to-services value chain teams are necessary to ensure that information of benefit to public and private stakeholders is assessed and included.

The following conditions will have to be met to achieve the EC Task Force priorities: 

Establish the capabilities of national and regional entities– A comprehensive monitoring of capabilities needs to be agreed and put into routine operation.

Clear value chains from hydrological data to products/services– Product and service requirements must be defined at local, national and regional levels with good examples championed by WMO. 

Address capacity needs– Assess and address Members’ capacity gaps in with regard to goals and principles above and develop capacity building activities to fulfil these.

Encourage and support cooperation– Cooperation must be based on common understanding and focused to optimize the benefit of the entire system for the benefit of all key stakeholders. 

Policies recognizing the connection between economic development and hydrological infrastructure– Actions by national policymakers to endorse and support the importance of hydrological data and information as essential factors contributing to economic prosperity and societal well-being.

Promotion of an open data policy among Members– WMO must continue to facilitate the sharing of water data by users to foster increased monitoring, analysis and reporting on real usage of the resource.

The WMO Commission for Hydrology has taken a leading role in organizing efforts to advance the complete hydrological value chain. It has taken a leading role in operational hydrology throughout the global community, including UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and governmental organizations. The recent transfer of the leadership of the World Water Data Initiative (WWDI) by the UN High Level Panel on Water to WMO has enabled Members to continue their participation on projects and to contribute their expertise to the identification of future issues and opportunities. However, it is the integrated approach promised by the WMO Constituent Body Reform that the impetus needed to respond to global challenges in hydrology.


WMO reform and hydrology 

From the above, it can be discerned that there are two main in areas in which WMO benefits hydrology:

  1. Tangible and high quality deliverables as well as quality assurance for third party activities, using the unique expertise within WMO and the UN in conjunction with well-recognized regulations.
  2. Concrete collaboration and coordination, leading to higher effectiveness and sustainability of efforts and outcomes.

The development and implementation of globally coordinated systems for acquiring, processing, transmitting and disseminating Earth system observations and related standards is a major contribution of WMO to operational hydrology. Further, its development and implementation of globally coordinated weather, climate, water, ocean and environment-related services and applications has enabled informed decision-making and realization of socioeconomic benefits by all user communities and society as a whole.

Stronger WMO internal coordination and gains in efficiency enabled by the Reform of its Constituent bodies will facilitate connections with the numerous and diverse users of hydrological services. 

Closer cross-cutting collaboration in all WMO areas of activity will specifically focus on the following issues:

  • Regulation and normalization, with a unified approach between Weather, Climate and Water
  • Development of WMO certification services 
  • Development of multi-Hazard early warning systems
  • Linking global, regional and national climate and hydrological services
  • Providing information on the current and future status of the earth system through consideration and analysis of the whole hydrological cycle
  • Improving synergies in applied research activities
  • Coordinating capacity building and training activities.

The majority of regulatory hydrological activities can be allocated to one of the two new technical commissions of the Constituent Body Reform. For instance, hydrological observations, infrastructure and information systems, such as the HydroHub and its components, would form a natural partnership with the Commission for Observation, Infrastructure and Information Services (Infrastructure Commission). Hydrological service-related activities, such as the WMO Flood Forecasting Programme and its components, would fit within in the Commission for Services and Applications (Services Commission). 

Water survey

Further consideration is still needed on how to provide the required representation and thematic coordination for end-to-end, cross-cutting hydrological activities, such as HydroSOS and QMF-Hydrology capacity development activities. These have observational, infrastructure and service components. In addition, several activities are purely hydrological in nature – such as the Project for the Assessment of the Performance of Flow Measurement Instruments and Techniques, the development of a Manual on Sediment Transport and the Guidelines on Environmental Flows. These activities all require a coordination function that can form part of the current preparations for Congress. 

The WMO Constituent Body Reform will strengthen the end-to end approach WMO promotes in all its activities across hydrology, climatology and meteorology and within its Members. Other UN Organizations, international agencies, private sector entities and NGOs who work to link sustainable development with water management will also see the benefits of integration.


Conclusions on reform and hydrology

The WMO reform process offers an opportunity to enhance the support provided by WMO to hydrologists and to users worldwide. It will increase the visibility, involvement and participation of the hydrological community in WMO activities and structures. This will augment the importance of WMO, and its contributions, in the global water agenda. The reform will open possibilities for the hydrological community to more fully respond to the demand for services and expertise from NGOs, scientific organisations, the private sector and other governmental stakeholders in hydrology, particularly national disaster risk reduction agencies.  

Having common procedures and mechanisms will make WMO more effective and enable the delivery of high value products. Yet, such product are only half of the positive impacts from the WMO Reform. By integrating activities across the meteorological value chain, the Reform will guarantee the integrity of the existing hydrological approach to water issues and the diverse needs of the hydrological community will be represented throughout the new structure. Many hydrological aspects – such as transboundary water assessment and management – are highly politicized and the WMO mandate as the international authority is the basis for relevant national representation on such issues.

The goal of WMO is to enable stakeholders to make informed decisions on water management, infrastructure and emergency situations. This means that users of hydrological services must benefit from an appropriate structure to submit their requirements, take part in decisions and receive the support they need. The WMO hydrological community should take the opportunities offered by the Reform to review current mechanisms and functioning. The Reform addresses national, regional and global water challenges by leveraging hydrological expertise and opening up new partnership possibilities while creating new political, technological and educational solutions for Members.

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