Water action and the climate agenda

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With climate change having far-reaching consequences for the water sector, Kala Vairavamoorthy reflects on the COP26 meeting, the urgency around the climate agenda, and the implications for the sector and for IWA.

The COP26 meeting in Scotland was billed as providing a last best chance to coordinate global commitment and action on climate change. This was especially so for mitigation efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions enough to limit global warming sufficiently to avoid a climate catastrophe.

Evidence has been mounting to underline that urgency. With the COP process forming part of the implementation mechanism of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, it is the outputs of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that provide the formal context of the status as far as climate is concerned. The first part of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment cycle spelled out the latest scientific consensus on the physical science of our changing climate in August. The evidence is clear: human activity is undoubtedly changing our global climate.

From flood, to drought, to rising seas, we know that changes in our climate become apparent through water. Water is the medium through which the impacts of a changing climate are felt – and they are already being felt, and will be increasingly so into the future.

Anticipating adaptation needs

Just as the IPCC’s Working Group I has delivered the consensus on the physical science around climate change, its Working Group II is set to deliver the consensus on adaptation in its contribution to the Sixth Assessment early in 2022. This will provide the authoritative framing for the water sector’s outlook for responding to and coping with the impacts of climate change for the years ahead. But the ever-growing signals of our adaptation needs were made clear in some of the influential reports released in the run-up to COP26 to urge the global community towards commitment around the meeting.

Key among these was UNEP’s Adaptation Gap report. This evaluates and assesses progress with national adaptation plans around the world. The subtitle of the latest edition sets the tone for the adaptation needs: ‘The Gathering Storm: Adapting to Climate Change in a Post-Pandemic World’.

This report stated: “Growing climate risks require a step change in adaptation ambition. Over the past two decades, climate risk warnings discussed in IPCC reports have continually risen due to increasingly stronger signals of reasons for concern. The most recent IPCC assessment report now concludes that some impacts of climate change are irreversible, even under highly ambitious mitigation regimes. Adaptation can significantly reduce loss and damage, particularly in the second half of the century, when climate impacts will accelerate. While strong mitigation is the way to minimise impacts and long-term costs, increased ambition in terms of adaptation, particularly for finance and implementation, is critical to prevent existing gaps widening.”

These impacts to which adaptation is needed span flood, drought, and sea level rise. We know that these have very real implications for human life. So much so that they can push people to leave their homes.

This human toll, of climate-related migration, was highlighted in the run-up to COP26 in the call for action made by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees: “Disasters brought on by hazardous weather events and made more likely by slow-onset climate impacts displace millions of people every year… Much displacement and suffering can be avoided or minimised with greater and urgent support to adaptation, particularly in the most climate vulnerable and fragile countries and communities – including people already displaced.”

A similar call was made in the lead-up to the meeting by the US, with the White House releasing its ‘Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration’ in October.

As noted in its introduction: “This report marks the first time the US Government is officially reporting on the link between climate change and migration.” It states: “Tens of millions of people are likely to be displaced over the next two to three decades due in large measure to climate change impacts.”

“COP26 offers a heartening signal that water’s time is coming – that there is growing recognition that dealing with climate will mean dealing with water”

Such displacement brings with it the prospect of greater pressure on water resources and on service provision in the locations to which people migrate. This often means urban and peri-urban areas, as well as the destinations of cross-border migration, shaping the adaptation measures needed.

This does not lessen the need for adaptation efforts in the places from which people have migrated. “It is also critical to support people who desire to stay as long and as safely as possible in their home areas through investments in disaster risk reduction (DRR) measures and local adaptation,” the report continues, adding: “Often, the individuals most at risk are the least able to relocate.”

What did COP26 deliver?

The call for action by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees also summed up the most urgent need around COP26 – to “keep 1.5 degrees within reach to avert the worst-case loss and damage scenarios by urgently increasing and implementing commitments to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions”.

This is where there are the greatest disappointments around COP26. Pledges by countries to achieve climate neutrality, whether by 2050, 2060 or 2070, represent huge undertakings. But more is needed, both in terms of the speed and scale of commitments to reductions and in terms of the provision of climate finance by developed countries – including honouring commitments already made.

The gap here was recognised at COP26, with the ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ that emerged from the summit calling on countries to reconvene at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh in 2022 and present more ambitious climate pledges.

On finance, more is needed to support mitigation efforts, but there is increasing awareness of the need to provide finance when it comes to the impacts of climate change. That means funding adaptation measures. It also means acknowledging that climate impacts are already being felt and that there will be unavoidable impacts for countries and communities who did not cause the climate impacts. This latter issue is at the heart of the debate around the COP process regarding what is known as ‘loss and damage’.

In its outcome document on the COP26 meeting, the UK government highlighted that the ‘Glasgow-Sharm el-Sheikh Work Programme on the Global Goal on Adaptation’ had been agreed, and that a commitment to doubling 2019 levels of adaptation finance by 2025 represented “the first time an adaptation specific financing goal has ever been agreed globally”. It also highlighted a new Glasgow Dialogue on loss and damage, and said that earlier efforts, the Santiago Network on loss and damage, had been “brought to life”.

Other progress beyond the main FCCC efforts included a declaration on forests and land use, with more than 130 countries signing up to work “to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030”. Another important development was the launch of the global methane pledge led by Europe and the US (see Analysis). This calls on countries to cut their methane emissions by 30% over 2020-30 and to move towards using the “best available inventory methodologies” to quantify emissions.

The positives for water

The above shows that adaptation was on the agenda at a COP meeting more than ever before. We also saw that water was more prominent than ever. This was particularly evident in the programmes put on in the UN ‘Blue Zone’ of the meeting through the Water Pavilion – the first such pavilion at a COP – and also at the Resilience Hub.

These contributed a rich and highly informed series of discussions across the two weeks of COP26, with the wider water presence in Glasgow driven by efforts such as the Water and Climate Coalition and focused through initiatives such as the Race to Zero and the Race to Resilience.

IWA added its voice to this push for a higher profile for water. For example, I moderated a special session on landscape-scale adaptation at the Resilience Hub. This included contributions from Vietnam and Bangladesh on the work of the Living Deltas Research Hub, and from the Future Fens initiative in the UK, as well as input from prominent figures such as Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency in England, Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, and Peter Simpson, chief executive of Anglian Water.

Also from the Secretariat, our IWA Strategic Programmes & Engagement Managers, Dr Samuela Guida and Carlos Dias, also participated in sessions – sharing insights into our Climate Smart Utilities initiative and connecting with schemes to encourage action by utilities. Samuela gave a presentation during the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action – Water Action Event, while Carlos participated in two sessions at the Water Pavilion during the Cities and Built Environment Day on 11 November – one on the role of cities and utilities in national adaptation plans and nationally determined contributions, the other on accelerating action in water resilience in cities and the built environment.

Water and the climate agenda

So, COP26 offers a heartening signal that water’s time is coming – that there is growing recognition that dealing with climate will mean dealing with water.

This applies for adaptation, meaning the time is coming for approaches such as the use of nature-based solutions as tools to deploy in the pursuit of a resilient future. The work I saw presented in Glasgow on the use of landscape-scale adaptation highlighted the potential of nature-based solutions that connect with the people who live in impacted areas and adopt comprehensive approaches that encompass livelihoods as well as the benefits to be gained from nature. We are still learning how best to deploy such measures, but the tide of interest in this direction is extremely promising.

It applies for mitigation also. We in the sector know well that utilities must embrace the drive for resilience, to ensure they are equipped to cope with flood and drought. But the demands for action on mitigation are so high that greenhouse gas emissions are needed wherever possible – providing a clear signal for water utility action on mitigation, too. This is why the aims of our Climate Smart Utilities programme resonate so strongly with the messages emerging from Glasgow and the wider climate agenda. It brings together both adaptation and mitigation in a quest for resilient utilities that are also able to provide much-needed leadership at a local level for progress on climate action. This includes taking a lead to help deliver the quick wins of the global methane pledge.

Alongside all of this, we also know that the water sector faces demands on numerous fronts, especially global change pressures such as population growth and urbanisation. There are many basic needs as yet unmet. And there are escalating pressures on our natural environment, threatening its integrity. We need to remain focused on these issues as well. In any case, none of these issues – climate change included – can be dealt with in isolation.

Climate change does though heighten and intensify the demands on our sector. But it is the speed of action needed on climate that should shape our outlook more than anything. Our response to the call for action on climate will shape the fortunes for our sector. The practical measures needed, whether it be greater efficiency, greater digitalisation, use of nature-based solutions, or decentralised systems, need to be hooked into what is a shifting policy landscape. Global progress on climate is often criticised for being woefully slow or inadequate, but the climate lens is nonetheless the one through which many currently see the world, including when looking for targets for pandemic stimulus packages.

So, we should remain determined to deliver on our mission of building a water-wise world. Our network and our activities are already primed to make a vital contribution here. At the same time, we must ensure we connect well with the climate change agenda – as we can through efforts such as our Climate Smart Utilities initiative – to best ensure we can capitalise on the momentum around climate and so accelerate our progress with our core mission. •

Dr Kala Vairavamoorthy is CEO of the International Water Association