Integrating water into the international climate discourse

Water is one of the more immediate and direct manifestations of the climate emergency. Food systems around the world are having to cope with floods, droughts, and changes in growing seasons and patterns of rainfall. Global policy arenas, however, do not seem to consider water a priority. Even when climate summits have considered water, there is no acknowledgement that food security, human health, biodiversity, energy supply, industrial growth and urban development depend on this precious commodity.

During 2019, IWMI has given particular emphasis to the integration of water into the international climate discourse. Building on our reputation as a global leader in water research, we aim to influence a more holistic view of water in the climate change debates. This entails a shift from the current, sectoral, approach, which considers water for sanitation, health, agriculture and the environment as separate areas of discussion, to more systems-based thinking on resource management under increasingly stressed conditions. To achieve this goal, a better understanding is needed of future climate conditions, including general trends and the prevalence of extreme weather events such as droughts and floods.

Global policy-makers were tasked with taking these issues into consideration when IWMI partnered with the World Water Council and the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA) to lead a side event at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid, Spain. A background paper, prepared by IWMI and AGWA for the Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA), was launched at the side event. The paper guides progress towards climate-resilient water management. Event participants provided inspiring examples that showcased water management solutions for climate change adaptation from around the world.

The paper for GCA provides an important summary of the water-related impacts of climate change, highlighting key areas for adaptation planning. Critically, it draws attention to a necessary shift in water management thinking. Previously, water planning has assumed that the climate – and thus water conditions – of tomorrow will be the same as yesterday, and that averages and probabilities of the past can guide action for the future. This is no longer true; the era of ‘stationarity’ is over. Against that background, the paper makes a series of recommendations that can be acted on at all levels of government and society. It calls for a change of mindset, making water a central concern of adaptation and resilience building. The paper concludes by stating that, “Every decision we make now about water management is also a chance to build resilience to climate change.”

IWMI is committed to supporting the delivery of GCA’s action tracks on water and agriculture. Under the ongoing Two Degree Initiative – from the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and partners across CGIAR – we are working with many countries to address climate change risks and shocks in their water, food and agricultural systems. The aim is to also support the development of climate-resilient river basin management plans.

Commitment to international initiatives also continues through IWMI’s contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in helping to prepare the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). During 2019, Aditi Mukherji, Leader of IWMI’s Research Group on Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience, was joint coordinating author on the water chapter of AR6, and several other researchers acted as expert reviewers for parts of the report. Here, too, we are stressing the central role of water in climate change.

IWMI’s position on water and climate change is essentially hopeful. In many cases, we have solutions that can help adaptation even in the face of uncertainty. Early warning systems coupled with flood or drought insurance can help protect people in affected areas to recover more rapidly. Also, mitigation efforts through nature-based solutions and climate-smart agriculture can help farmers and water managers to manage the impacts of shifting weather patterns.

IWMI will continue to champion water as a central element in all preparations for climate change adaptation and resilience building in 2020 and beyond.

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