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Unless water occupies a more central role in decisions regarding crises such as climate change and food security, a global water shortage could ensue — leading to political conflict and insecurity, says a new report.

It summons leaders in government, the private sector and civil society to put water at the heart of their thinking, stressing water's essential role in achieving sustainable development and the Millennium Development Goals.

The report, 'Water in a Changing World', is an assessment of global freshwater resources prepared by the World Water Assessment Programme under the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

It says that awareness of the potential severe water shortages has not diffused into the wider political community. It also highlights a major research gap in understanding water resources, particularly in developing countries, and warns that incomplete data is leading to incorrect predictions.

If water is not linked to other problems such as the food crisis "other crises may intensify and local water crises may worsen, converging into a global water crisis and leading to political insecurity and conflict at various levels", the report says.

It urges policymakers who are responsible for key decisions on development objectives and financial resources to act immediately on such grounds.

The report also calls for a more holistic approach to predicting future pressures on global water resources, branding existing predictions "outdated, incomplete or sectoral".

All external threats to global water resources — including natural forces such as climate change and human factors such as population dynamics, increasing international trade in goods and services, and individual lifestyle changes — should be incorporated into predictions, it says.

"Drivers should not be considered in isolation of related socioeconomic and political factors or of other drivers."

More complete data on water quantity and quality is also required if water resources are to be properly managed and future needs accurately estimated, according to the report. It says that while technologies such as remote sensing and modelling have made significant advances, these gains are hampered by an inadequate ability to validate observations on the ground.

"There is little doubt that global hydrologic data are inadequate in both spatial coverage and frequency of observations. Moreover hydrologic observation networks are worsening in many countries because of changing national investment priorities and declining human capacity," the report says. "Synthetically-generated data cannot substitute for real-world observations."

And policy and security issues, a lack of protocol and limited physical access to data means that data are not being shared — hindering regional and global projects that rely on shared datasets, and causing observational gaps.

The report, presented today (12 March), is accompanied by a series of case studies on selected countries including Cameroon, Sudan and Swaziland.