Why water should take centre stage in climate discussions

Maurice Hall

By Maurice Hall

The recent UN IPCC report offers stark warnings about fast-rising temperatures. San Francisco’s Global Climate Action Summit unsurprisingly focused on reducing emissions. Yet as speakers at the two-day affiliated Water Pavilion noted, most impacts are related to extreme precipitation: too much or too little.

Devastating floods in North Carolina, drenched by peak rainfall during Hurricane Florence that researchers say climate change worsened by 50 percent, have been followed by record-setting droughts that have brought California to its knees. And the US is hardly alone. Water extremes are recurring from Cape Town narrowly avoiding “Day Zero” and São Paulo’s “state of calamity” with barely a month’s supply of water in 2015, to multiple typhoons more recently pounding Japan and deadly cyclones flooding northern India.

Put simply, water is the blade of climate change that will cut most deeply.

To reduce or stop the bleeding, it’s time to elevate water issues in climate change discussions. Water can and should be centre stage at the upcoming 24th UN Conference of Parties climate conference in Poland in December.

Why? Because water is a, if not the, crucial component of climate change adaptation and resilience. Even against a constant yearly average, long periods of drought punctuated by episodes of excessive rainfall are expected to become more common. That means more effective water management will be our only hope of sustainably meeting the needs of a growing global population and of agriculture. Moreover, conserving water can help reduce emissions.

For starters, more than 1 billion people in the world drink contaminated water, and are most vulnerable to climate shocks. There is a 7-to-1 benefit-to-cost ratio for basic water and sanitation services in developing countries.

Inaction is not an option. Each degree of global warming is projected to decrease renewable water resources by at least 20 percent for an additional 7 percent of the world population.

Nearly a fifth of California’s state electricity is used for water. Electricity consumed for water accounts for 4 percent of total global electricity consumption. Of that electricity, 40 percent is used to extract water, 25 percent to treat wastewater and 20 percent to distribute water.

So why isn’t water more central to the climate narrative? The harshest answer to this question comes from actor Edward Norton, who described our relationship to water as “uniquely apathetic, entitled and grossly negligent”.

“Water has been taken for granted, as abundant and free,” said Norton, who added that you can live for weeks without food, but not even 100 hours without water (some estimate a week).

“Yet most people think they couldn’t survive without their iPhones for a shorter period of time.”

The failure to price water appropriately is a symptom of undervaluing this precious resource. Water pricing, therefore, will play an important role in rebalancing our water systems.

In the western US, water trading will help economically value water, as California implements its landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which will require basins around the state to slow, stop, and even reverse the depletion of local aquifers.

Pricing is also an essential ingredient in approaches to addressing water scarcity among cities, tribes and farmers. Pricing is also intertwined with environmental justice, ensuring enough water for all, forever. “We know if we don’t price water, it’s the poor and vulnerable that pay five to 50 times more,” said Henk Ovink, the Netherlands’ special envoy for International Water Affairs, because scarce water must be shipped in to underserved areas by trucks at exorbitant expense.

Inadequate funding and investment in water infrastructure also have been major barriers to building climate resilience. California is a microcosm of the world. While it won voter approval in June for US$1.27 billion to build or repair manmade water projects, the state has long underinvested in its “natural water infrastructure”–the watersheds that collect our rain and snow, the rivers that deliver water to our farms and cities, and the vast underground basins that store our groundwater and deliver it to our wells. Maintaining our natural infrastructure is crucial to climate change resilience.

Finally, innovation is also important to adapting our water systems to climate change. But innovation in water is particularly and needlessly challenging. The water sector suffers the greatest inertia of any business, says Andrew Benedek of Anaergia, and breaking into the market requires long-term, patient, impact-oriented investors and unusually imaginative utilities. I agree, but would add that innovation also involves working with diverse partners, from small farmers to the tech sector.

So how do we elevate water in climate change discussions?

Some say we need a more cohesive voice, a new narrative and better water education. “Do you identify yourself as a united movement?” asked May Boeve, executive director of 350.org. “Water movement” sounds like a dance class she would take in Berkeley, she said, half-jokingly.

Terry Tamminen, CEO of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, called for more “eco-literacy.” Beyond politics and money, he said, ignorance is one reason water is getting the short shrift.

Others advised telling the tales of real people behind the statistics. “Tell better stories,” said J. Carl Ganter, of Circle of Blue. “Tell them now. And tell them with heart and soul.”

These components are interconnected. A compelling narrative and united movement can build community involvement and political will, which can help garner more funding to invest in our water infrastructure.

The important stories about extreme water are ultimately about people–parched farmers, bankrupt businesses, overwhelmed coastal dwellers, the displaced poor–who will be cut by the blade of climate change if we don’t step up to the challenge of building more resilient water systems.


Maurice Hall is an Associate Vice President of Ecosystems, for water at Environmental Defense Fund