Review: UN-Water Analytical Brief on Unconventional Water Resources

Water scarcity is escalating in many parts of the world and water managers are running out of proverbial arrows in their quiver of traditional water management techniques. Climate change has added another layer of uncertainty that has challenged conventional water resources management. Now is the time to think outside the box for regions highly impacted by water scarcity.

In this context, the Analytical Brief on Unconventional Water Resources from UN-Water is very timely and much needed to start a genuine debate among water managers, development organizations and researchers on how to mainstream unconventional water management technologies. The brief covers eight unconventional water management techniques, giving relevant examples of their application around the world. As the title suggests, this is a brief and not an extensive, in-depth review of these technologies. Nevertheless, going beyond the potential of each technique, the brief touches upon governance, policies and institutions required for the successful adoption of these techniques. The brief also highlights some of the key barriers and ways forward to encourage adoption of these technologies.

Some of the techniques mentioned in the brief are more mainstream than others. For example, desalination of seawater or brackish water is being practiced in many countries on a large scale, but has remained within the domain of energy-rich or affluent nations. Now, with access to cheaper renewable energy, these techniques are within the reach of less affluent countries, thus making it a viable option.

Reusing municipal wastewater and stormwater, potentially through managed aquifer recharge, and the use of residual water from agriculture are practiced in many regions. However, the implementation of such practices is on a small scale. These practices need to be more widely adopted. Recycling water is also energy-intensive, but will become more common with access to cheaper and decentralized energy. Still, these are usually less expensive options than bringing water from outside the catchment boundaries.

Other techniques such as cloud seeding, fog water collection, iceberg transportation, cautious groundwater mining from offshore aquifers, and ballast water from ships have either been theoretically studied or have some incidental examples. They do help in stirring the minds to think differently. The brief correctly highlights that we need to be cognizant of the potential environmental and social impacts of adopting these techniques. Since these are unconventional water management techniques, limited long-term impact assessments have been carried out. Thus, research on these techniques and multi-level cooperation should go hand in hand with their implementation.

This UN-Water brief is anticipated to encourage water resource managers and international developers to look for local and unconventional solutions to their water woes.


Dr. Aditya Sood

Hydrologist and Watershed Modeler, The Freshwater Trust, Portland, Oregon, USA



UN-Water. 2020. UN-Water Analytical Brief on Unconventional Water Resources. Geneva, Switzerland: UN-Water.

The Analytical Brief on Unconventional Water Resources was prepared by Manzoor Qadir (United Nations University – Institute for Water, Environment and Health [UNU-INWEH]) on behalf of the UN-Water Task Force on Unconventional Water Resources. Coordinated by UNU-INWEH, the Task Force comprises the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) as UN-Water Members; and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) as a UN-Water Partner.

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