At the time of writing, the global climate conference — COP27 — is only a month away. Is water on the global climate agenda?
I have been working on water and climate policy issues since COP15 in 2009, and our organisation has worked directly with the UNFCCC and many national governments on national and global climate policy since about 2015. I am proud to have co-chaired with a Moroccan colleague from the OECD the first “water day” in Marrakesh at COP 22 in 2016. We have worked with several COP hosts since then, most recently the UK (in Glasgow, COP 26) and currently with Egypt in anticipation of the meeting in Sharm al-Sheik this year. I have a long-term view of the COP process from a water perspective.
In my opinion, the climate community realizes they have a water problem, but large parts of the water community still haven’t realized they have a climate problem.
Last year, 193 countries submitted their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The name sounds bureaucratic and technical, but these climate plans represent the early stages of a rethink of economic development. NDCs are meant to integrate efforts both to slow down climate change (reducing and storing greenhouse emissions, or climate mitigation) and policies and projects that will help our economies, communities, and ecosystems cope with climate impacts (climate adaptation and resilience). They are five-year plans, intended to become more ambitious and sweeping in scope in each iteration. We’re still in the first half of the first generation of NDCs.
What we are hearing from negotiators is that water runs throughout their NDCs — from irrigation projects to the water embedded in their clean energy production. They have been reaching out for help in integrating water and then ensuring that they can deliver on the promises they are making. What we are also hearing is that these negotiators are very concerned about a special climate term, i.e. ‘transformation’. At a UNFCCC meeting in Bonn last June, I heard many countries — the Maldives, Zambia, the USA — all refer to transformation as the critical issue they were most worried about.
Transformation means that as climate impacts accumulate, we pass climatic and ecological tipping points, and major changes occur quite suddenly. Perhaps the most obvious ones are the loss of glaciers in the Andes and the Himalayas, or the defrosting of Greenland, Siberia, and northern Canada. When a frozen place becomes a grassland — or even a forest — that’s transformation. I like to think of it as a place you think you know well becoming unfamiliar. National climate negotiators are looking into the climate science and seeing that every country is going through at least the early stages of transformation now. The most important of these changes comes through the water cycle — shifts in precipitation patterns, changes in water availability, disconnecting sectors and communities (or forcing them to compete with each other or with ecosystems for water).
A few politicians are addressing this issue directly. California Governor Gavin Newsom talks about the need for reframing water and climate as a scarcity issue to an “abundance” issue, so that his citizens (and voters and investors) have hope and faith in the future of his highly water-stressed region. Those are powerful messages for COP.
Despite this change in the climate community, I often hear different stories from water professionals. Often, I hear that programmes that have been in place for decades like water efficiency efforts are already providing climate resilience benefits. Almost invariably, these statements are untested and unverified, and I feel skeptical about such claims. I also hear that we need more “data” to de-risk water projects. De-risking is a finance term, which in practice means to make small adjustments to a project to avoid a threat.
The gap between “transformation” and “de-risking” is wider than the Red Sea, where COP27 will occur. To me, the climate negotiators have it right: focus on the big problems, which will largely require big water resilience solutions. What I see on the water side are mostly small responses, and no one is really talking about transformation there yet.
My hope for COP27? That the water community listens to the insights of climate negotiators, and steps up as a full partner in provisioning those solutions.