“A menace with hope”: Reconsidering the role of water in climate resilience

Climate change will hit the water cycle the hardest. Many of the negative and most severe impacts of climate change are manifested through changes to the water cycle. It is no longer considered surprising to find daily news stories of water causing devastation around the world in the form of floods, droughts and heatwaves. However, the conception of water is often local in scale (e.g. local irrigation) and the policy response to water-related challenges are often based on standalone strategies and short-term remediation (e.g. repairing flood levees).

Climate is Water

In fact, water is intimately embedded in all processes of the global climate system and is often a common element in strategies of climate change adaptation. Sound water management is not only important to ensure adequate water supply: few realise that water also permeates across other sectors and is the critical resource in a wide variety of resilience-relevant challenges such as water-borne disease transmission (health), rural sanitation (gender equality), drought-driven climate refugees (migration) and transboundary water conflict (political stability). The climate change adaptation community and past international climate summits have so far failed to adequately consider the full links between water and climate change. Despite the fact that water relates to just about everything, it is far too often considered as a separate and standalone issue. As an example, in the 4 pages dedicated to water in the Global Commission on Adaptation Report, water resources were considered as separate to infrastructure resilience and early warning systems, despite the fact that appropriate water management is critical to the success of both.

Water-Centric Climate Adaptation

A new, more holistic paradigm is finally emerging at this year’s COP25 on the back of the launch of a background paper on water and climate change adaptation. Launched at a jointly organized side event by the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the background paper titled “Adaptation’s Thirst: Accelerating the Convergence of Water and Climate Action” argues for the need to reframe the story of water and climate change beyond the traditional lens of devastation and menace.

The background paper attempts to usher a paradigm shift in the adaptation community by presenting the first coherent vision on how water is able to connect the various components required to ensure climate resilience. Adopting a water-centric adaptation approach can simultaneously align climate adaptation with water management as well as mainstream the practice of integrative water management in the broader climate adaptation agenda. Introducing the new background paper, Dr John Matthews, executive director of AGWA injected some hope for the future by suggesting that water is “menace with hope” and is the best tool to coherently organise our national and global climate solutions. Flexible, co-management regimes in collaborative water governance, the inclusion of water resources in bottom-up multi-sectoral risk assessments and the need to fully consider water resources in the finance, investment and insurance industry were among the recommendations given in in order to more fully consider water resources in climate change adaptation.

Crisis into Opportunities

The Netherlands is a worthy case to consult in the mission to foster a culture that thrives by living with water rather than acting against it. At a separate side event organised by the UN, Henk Ovink, Netherlands’ inaugural National Envoy for International Water Affairs, spoke about the novelty of his role and the idea of using water to accelerate climate action. As leaders in community-based collaborative water governance, Henk used examples of successful water-centric adaptation projects in the Netherlands to echo the opportunity to leverage human ingenuity and use design, innovation and creativity in water management to strengthen institutional capacity and ensure climate resilience.

Climate change will no doubt lead to significant shifts in the water cycle and the frequency of extreme floods and droughts will increase. However, as the background paper and all the panellists at the COP25 launch event suggested, the story of water in the future under climate change need not be one of devastation and destruction. For climate change adaptation to make economic sense and be cost-effective in the long run, it has to be done effectively. The next step forward should surely be to recognise that for climate adaptation to be effective and successful, it has to consider water management in all future strategies and appreciate water resources as the integrative resource that it is.