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Home » Water for Development

A blueprint for climate policy

Submitted by on 28 Sep 2015 – 09:06

Water is crucial for human sustenance, health and dignity; as a driver for business; for food and energy security; and for the broader ecosystem. Karin Lexen, Director of World Water Week, International Processes and Prizes, Stockholm International Water Institute addresses the role of water for development within the thematic scope of this year’s World Water Week in Stockholm

Karin Lexén (1)This year, a number of high-level decisions on sustainable development will be made – decisions that will steer our future. The anticipated climate agreement of the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in December is one such milestone.

The role of water in sustainability and the link between water management and climate both seem to be well understood by many local and national stakeholders. The private sector is also showing significantly greater appreciation for the vital role of water. However, there attitudes have not yet been given its due importance. World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Risk Report’ earlier this year stated that of all the risks facing the globe in the next ten years, a water crisis would have the most damaging impact on countries and industries.

The report also highlighted its close link to extreme weather events and the need for climate change adaptation.This recognition needs a much better integration into global climate policies, in particular the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) programmes and mechanisms however.

Currently, there is no reference to water anywhere in the negotiating text for the agreement.

A dehydrated agreement?
Freshwater is still regarded by many negotiators as a “sector” on par with agriculture and energy, rather than as a resource that facilitates successful implementation. But there is growing concern that the ‘absence’ of water in the agreement may actually make its successful implementation by countries, more difficult.

It also overlooks several opportunities to leverage synergies and ignores risks relating to competing water users and water uses. Ultimately, any plan to tackle climate change that omits freshwater, can only ever be that – a plan.

A “dehydrated” climate change agreement, national adaptation plan or any mitigation activity will likely lead to the following:
By incentivizing fossil free energy sources such as hydropower and biofuels, such a dehydrated global climate agreement will increase our dependence on water-intensive energy sources. At the same time, we need to buffer communities, agriculture, and ecosystems from climate impacts — which will increase water demand.

Many regions are already seeing competition between climate mitigation and climate adaptation, such as corn as a fuel versus basic food source in North America. Without careful thought, we risk tensions between our ability to cope with impacts now – even as we are trying to define commitments to slow future climate change. Clearly, both goals must be met. Nevertheless, there is little coherence in how we set goals and define current and future needs around water for mitigation and adaptation.

Investment policies that are not resilient may make economies less stable, and more vulnerable to water shocks and conflict.

We normally manage water through expensive, large investments in energy, irrigation, water treatment and supply that are hard to build and difficult to modify – especially if water conditions or economic needs change. However, in many regions, design and operations of these investments may not match emerging climate conditions. Policies that are not resilient might make economies less stable and vulnerable to water shocks.

© Peter Kristensen, EEA

© Peter Kristensen, EEA

Water shocks can have enduring, even escalating impacts, with limited ability to respond
Severe droughts have shut down navigation networks in the Danube and Mississippi rivers, and recent flooding crippled electronics production in Thailand. A new hydropower facility can require a decade of planning and construction, consume more than a billion euros in financing before any power is actually generated, and remain in operation for several centuries.

Our ability to design water management facilities that are robust to 10 or 20 years of climate change – let alone a century or more – remains very limited. At a minimum, economic development policies will likely need a lot of climate adaptation just to keep these investments productive and viable, not the least those designed to promote climate mitigation.

In both cases, without careful planning and coordination, a dehydrated global climate agreement will increase our dependence and vulnerability to future water shocks, promote development conflicts between energy, food, and urban security, and ultimately endanger our ability to meet climate mitigation goals as countries respond to crises by favouring climate adaptation.

Water connects all things
Beyond being a key consideration in any implementation strategy, water has the potential to act as a connector between mitigation and adaptation policy areas, economic sectors, and nations with shared water resources. It is also closely linked to several risks including food crises, interstate conflict, profound social instability, extreme weather events and failure of climate-change adaptation and urban planning.
While the link that water makes between climate change mitigation and adaptation is generally recognized, it has also not translated to the negotiations. Mitigation and adaptation are in fact, dealt within separate negotiation tracks. While this division has historical reasons and may make sense from a technical perspective, it fails to take into account the many linkages between the two issues – notably, water.

By separating these policy areas, we are potentially missing major opportunities to both slow or even reverse effects of climate change and help economies and communities adjust to climate impacts – all while growing sustainably.

If they continue to be handled separately however, a new global agreement could potentially create competing incentives and even seed future conflicts. For example, should India irrigate fields or generate electricity? Should Brazil grow more biofuels or slake the thirst of its growing cities?

Ultimately, the agreement is not just about exploring (and avoiding future) problems associated with the impact of climate change

Any lasting and successful outcome must be about making plans for the future that support national, sustainable development goals. During the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) process, coordinated at UNFCCC level, countries will be able to develop medium to long-term adaptation plans that integrate various sectors. They should not treat water as a sector, and several have in fact, had the vision to implement fully “hydrated” NAPs.

Water is a finite resource. It has competing uses that must be managed sustainably. During this process, countries need to make smart decisions about action on adaptation and prioritization of funding, and water can provide the path for this.