Water and Climate Change: Are Humans Prepared to Adapt to Growing Challenge?

Water and Climate Change: Are Humans Prepared to Adapt to Growing Challenge?

The link between water and climate change is palpable, yet it had never been addressed during a meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) until this year in Morocco. On this occasion, an entire day — fostered by the Moroccan Kingdom — was dedicated to water. But water is still not an important part of global climate negotiations. Although it is included in the “Nairobi Work Programme” — formed in 2005 to “facilitate and catalyze” the development and dissemination of information on the impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change — many countries are blocking the inclusion of water because it would mean trans-boundary catchment negotiations, collaboration and planning, and affect sovereignty or geopolitical positions.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognizes that water is in conflict in all the world regions. Thirty-three percent of the more than 1 billion people living in Africa lack access to improved drinking water and 47 percent live in water-stressed regions. This year the Brahmaputra River in Bangladesh reached its highest-ever autumn levels after a monsoon season that had 66 percent less rain than usual. Slums are growing rapidly in Bangladesh and a million people have migrated to India, both due to flooding. In 2010, 20 percent of Pakistan was flooded. In 2014, the city of Sao Paulo, with a population of 17 million, almost run out of water when its reservoir reached the historic minimum level of 2.9 percent. The list of extreme water related events goes on and on.

The climate impacts on water — either by desertification, shifting of rainy seasons, more frequent flooding, let alone sea level rise — are clear. According to the 5th IPCC assessment, water is going to be the most affected resource by climate change. That’s why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) proposed the water security concept. And we cannot forget that water, more than a resource, is a link between different resources. Even still, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the parent treaty of the Kyoto Protocol, hasn’t adopted it yet. And there was no mention of it in the Paris Agreement.

That’s why adaptation to climate change is all about water.

During the Morocco climate meeting, Hakima El Haite, the Moroccan minister of the environment, called for water action and the inclusion of water in the climate agenda not just because the manifest impacts but also because of the importance attributed to water in the Quran. Following the same line, Senegal’s Ministry of Water believes there is no longer any need to study what developing countries need to do in order to adapt, but to support them with what they are already doing. In this sense, for him and for the African Development Bank, the cooperation South-South is better than developed countries aid. Simply because developing countries understand the conditions of the problems and the limitations. Developing countries are also moving forward with topics in the agenda that have been overlooked. For instance, Chile is firmly calling for action over the ocean.

The challenge, particularly in the developing world, is about not climate change mitigation but adaptation and means of implementation. Agricultural production, demographics, urban planning, and every aspect of life will be affected. The adoption of measures to cope with water-related impacts is an intricate and complex field. That’s why Robert Pietrowsky, director of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, believes that water management is moving away from hard science and getting closer to a social science and that civil society has to be included in the decisions. Not only because the decisions are going to impact every one of us, but because through inclusion the inputs are going to be richer and the implementation easier. With inclusion of the civil society and capacity building, such situations as the disastrous drying of Lake Chad could be avoided. But we need to act now.

The action on water stress and flooding is urgent, and therefore a fast track for economic aid is needed. The Inter-American Development Bank expects to mobilize US $500 million next year for adaptation projects in Latin America, and the Climate Fund is going to allocate 50 percent of its resources destined to Africa on adaptation. But those actions aren’t enough. Adaptation is not about some specific government projects but about behavioral change, creation of adequate institutions, and capacity building. If these can be achieved sustainable and long-lasting adaptation projects could be done; otherwise infrastructure projects are going to be futile efforts.
Finally, we can’t forget that the main human characteristic, the one that took us where we are, is adaptation. We do resist, stand, and adapt to almost everything. Are we going to adapt to climate change?

Camilo Huneeus Guzmán is a first-year Master in Environmental Management candidate at F&ES. He served as support staff for the Chilean Negotiation Team during COP22.