Evidence shows UN Water Conference must address human population

21 March 2023, immediate use

“Population growth regionally and globally drives water demand across multiple sectors, in particular through the water-energy-food nexus; increases water pollution, climate change and aquatic biodiversity loss; increases people’s vulnerability to water-related hazards; and reduces capacity for adaptation and resilience in the face of those hazards.”

That is the conclusion of a new briefing, released today by campaigning charity Population Matters, as its delegation prepares to make the case for addressing population at the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York, 22-24 March. (1)

Members of the delegation are available for interview and comment throughout the event.

The fully referenced two-page briefing outlines the evidence that action to address unsustainable human population is essential if Sustainable Development Goal 6 Clean water and sanitation is to be achieved. That evidence includes:

  • The UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has identified that 23 countries will face increased risk of exposure to drought primarily due to population growth and 38 mostly due to the interaction between climate change and population growth. (2)
  • 13 Least Developed Countries, which all have high population growth, are on UNCCD’s list of 23 countries experiencing drought emergencies between 2020 and 2022. Those include Afghanistan (UN-projected population growth of 80% by 2050), Niger (157% growth), Madagascar (75% growth) and Ethiopia (76%). (3)
  • In 2022, the Institute for Economics and Peace concluded that the region with the highest risk of conflict arising from ecological threats is Sub-Saharan Africa where 206 million people are at risk of extreme water security and “population growth will dramatically increase pressure on existing food and water supplies.” (4)
  • 72% of all water withdrawals are for agriculture. (5) According to the FAO, the total amount of food, fibre and biofuels produced by agriculture globally will need to increase by 50% relative to 2012 to meet demand. Food production in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (both facing high water stress) will need to more than double to meet estimated calorific requirements. (6)
  • Action to reduce population-driven pressure on water in the most vulnerable regions is positive, voluntary and improves people’s lives: tackle poverty and inequality; ensure universal access to high quality education; achieve gender equality; ensure full sexual and reproductive rights and health, including meeting the unmet need for contraception of more than 250 million women, (7) and ending preventable child and maternal deaths.

Population Matters Executive Director Robin Maynard, who is attending the conference, says:

“There are multiple drivers of water stress, pollution and vulnerability to water-related crises, such as drought and floods.  What’s surprising is that while human population pressure is widely recognised in the literature and official reports as among those drivers, the positive, ethical actions which reduce population growth and simultaneously improve people’s lives aren’t among the solutions being discussed in New York. We’re not pretending that tackling population is a magic wand that solves the water crisis, but there’s an opportunity here to advance progress across all the Sustainable Development Goals that should be on the table.”

The briefing is available online at www.populationmatters.org/water



At the conference (New York time):

Robin Maynard; +44 (0)7932 040 452; robin.maynard@populationmatters.org

In the UK:

Alistair Currie; +44 (0)208 123 9170 (24hrs); alistair.currie@populationmatters.org


(1) More information on conference at https://sdgs.un.org/conferences/water2023

(2) United Nations Convention to End Desertification (2022) Drought in numbers https://www.unccd.int/sites/default/files/2022-05/Drought_in_Numbers_%28English%29.pdf

(3) UNCDD list as above: population growth figures (based on 2022 baseline) from United Nations Population Division (2022) https://population.un.org/wpp/Graphs/

(4) Institute for Economics & Peace (2022) Ecological Threat Report 2022: Analysing Ecological Threats, Resilience & Peace https://www.economicsandpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/ETR-2022-Web.pdf

(5) Food and Agriculture Organization (2021) Progress on level of water stress, 2021 https://www.unwater.org/sites/default/files/app/uploads/2021/08/SDG6_Indicator_Report_642_Progress-on-Level-of-Water-Stress_2021_ENGLISH_pages-1.pdf

(6) Food and Agriculture Organization (2022) The state of the world’s land and water resources for food and agriculture https://www.fao.org/3/cb7654en/cb7654en.pdf  

(7) Unmet need has increased from 230m in 1990 to 270m in 2020: Kantarova et al (2020) Estimating progress towards meeting women’s contraceptive needs in 185 countries PLOS Medicine https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1003026


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