COP26: The Stakes For The Water Community

Guest Columnist: John Matthews, Executive Director, Alliance for Global Water Adaptation

19 Oct 2021 by The Water Diplomat
CORVALLIS OR, United States

John H Matthews

The water Diplomat Voices is a series of guest columns written by participants in different parts of the international water community. 

As we approach the Glasgow Climate Summit (COP26), John Matthews reflects on how this summit is already different from those previous, observing four major changes from the past.

In the next days, Scotland and the United Kingdom will host the 26th meeting of the national parties for the global UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP26). Deferred by a year because of Covid-19, COP26 will be one of the largest — and most important — international meetings to occur in the past 18 months.

I will be attending COP26 in person. My first COP was in 2009 — COP15 in Copenhagen — and Ive been to all but a handful of the annual meetings since then as well as a number of the so-called intersessional meetings that occur between COPs. My engagement and, for the past 11 years, that of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA), has always been focused on climate policy and finance and how they may be interacting with the emerging insights from the water community, especially how we manage water resources with and for resilience. I wouldnt claim that I am the institutional memory for the water community on climate policy, but Id like to think I was on the committee. And while there were others working in this space on climate policy before me, the number of people from the first generation of advocates and advisors in this space who are still involved on water and climate policy is very small.

How is COP26 different than past COPs? What do we, in the water community, stand to lose or gain? My reflections are highly personal, opinionated, and full of caveats and some bruises. That said, I see four major changes from every past COP I have attended or am aware of.

First, the water community is more organized now than it has ever been. Led by a small but very focused group (Jennifer Jun at SIWI, Cate Lamb at CDP, James Dalton at IUCN, Danielle Gaillard-Picher at GWP, and Ingrid Timboe at AGWA), the water community has created both a dedicated venue for climate and water (through a Water Pavilion, funded from a variety of sources) and made strategic placements of water speakers in other venues, such as the Resilience Hub. Water has gone from having a day” (i.e., 90 minutes) at the Marrakech COP in 2016 to having a physical and virtual home for the full 12 days of the meeting. The Water Pavilion is an experiment in having a primary, coordinated, and cultivated venue for water-related climate issues. In contrast to Paris and Marrakesh, the water community is highlighting its “service” function around climate change through the theme of #water4climate.

Second, the UK and Scottish governments, with a small group of other national parties, have made adaptation and resilience much higher level priorities for COP26 than at any previous COP. By elevating adaptation issues, water issues are dragged along — most adaptation practitioners understand that water is central to how we see and reduce climate risks. Reinforcing this message has been an unprecedented period of climate-related disasters, lifting public awareness of the need for adaptation. The US government recently announced that some 26 climate change related events, each totalling $1 Billion USD or more in damages, have occurred in the past year. Citizens in China, the Philippines, Australia, across East Africa, and in Germany (among many others) have also seen notable impacts.

One journalist called 2021 the “year that climate change hit the developed world.” In response, we see groups such as the Water and Climate Coalition, led by the WMO, organizing the UN family around water resilience, while the Water Resilience Coalition, led by the Pacific Institute and CEO Water Mandate, engages with businesses worldwide on the same issues. Ideas are becoming programs, and programs are becoming projects. Groups such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank (WB) have aggressively begun to actively define “Paris Alignment” in terms of specific deliverables and indicators at a very operational level. Interestingly, these issues have been largely ignored and unreported in the press.

Third, national climate planning has spread to many countries, as the Paris Agreements primary climate policy instruments - called Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs - become active with this COP, with more than 30 updated NDCs submitted to the UNFCCC in recent weeks alone. Moreover, the people who come to COP are different: the negotiators are more operational. They are the planners and focal points. To support the transition, the UK has launched an intergovernmental group called the Adaptation Action Coalition (AAC), hosted by the World Resources Institute (WRI), and co-chaired by the UK and Egypt (the probable host of COP27). The AAC itself has a strong water program, centered on a program called the Water Tracker for National Climate Planning, which is designed to help dozens of countries ensure their NDCs are both credible and effective by revealing the water risks and synergies embedded in their national planning processes.

Finally, the UNFCCC itself has changed, and water and climate are much higher within their own agenda. Over the past few weeks, the UNFCCC, in partnership with three regional universities, the Korean Environment Institute (KEI), and AGWA have hosted a one-week intensive, remote Adaptation Academy for national focal points from 67 countries, which converts to a three- to four-week residential course next year. Representing the first and only UNFCCC accredited adaptation training, the Adaptation Academy works with a water-centric curriculum, delivered through three universities with exemplary water and climate programs. The scale and intensity of this work, intended to help national climate focal points learn how to perform a fundamentally new type of work, is extremely impressive.

I cant promise fireworks for COP26. I cant promise change overnight. But like water on a dry sponge, we have seeped within the very architecture of climate policy, finance, and practice.


John H. Matthews is the Executive Director and co-founder of AGWA. His work blends technical and policy knowledge for climate adaptation and water management for practical implementation.  His work primarily targets decision-making frameworks for adapting water infrastructure and ecosystems to climate impacts. Under his leadership, the AGWA network directly advises many national governments, corporations, the European Union, and key financial institutions on water-related climate risks, while AGWA has also become the official voice of the water community in the UNFCCC. 

John has advised a wide range of institutions, including bilateral, multilateral, NGO, national level agencies, UN agencies, foundations, and corporations on topics ranging from non-stationary resource management, finance, economics, and management practice. He is a columnist with The water Diplomat, a Senior Water Fellow at Colorado State University, and a Courtesy Faculty member of the Water Resources Graduate Program at Oregon State University. Previously, John started and directed global freshwater climate adaptation programs for WWF and Conservation International. He has PhD in ecology from the University of Texas, where he studied long-distance migration by dragonflies.