How water finally became a climate change priority

Last year, the world watched as punishing heat and drought killed people in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and floods destroyed parts of Pakistan and the Philippines. This year, we’ve seen torrential rain drowning sections of coastal California. These events underscore the devastating role water can play in a changing climate, something I have been studying for the last two decades.

Between all these events I attended my first COP—the United Nations’ major climate change conference. My expectations here were mixed; in conversations with members of the water networks with whom I work, it was evident that we would have a lot of work to do to make it a more critical component of the climate negotiations process. Yet, to my joy and surprise, COP27 did just that—policy makers and advocates focused on, for likely the first time, the interactions between climate change and water. The international agreement (called the COP cover decision) that came out of the days of negotiations prioritized the need to focus on “water systems” and “water-related ecosystems in delivering climate adaptation benefits.” This agreement solidified the idea that water is a valuable resource that can help society become more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

This was a huge win. Talks at COP27 also reinforced the need for international cooperation to support countries and communities as they build water security—creating a reliable system in which society has enough clean water (not too much, not too little).

Last year, the Sixth IPCC report showed clearly that climate change is causing water insecurity. The report, which comes from the United Nations, also showed how the extremes of water—floods, shortages and droughts—are linked to the natural water cycle. This, in turn, is affected by climate. In addition, water and climate influence food availability, and global food crises reflect that link. What we are seeing now, more than ever before, is failing agriculture and increasing food insecurity, culminating in heightened levels of inequality, fragility and instability. We are witnessing this cruel scenario play out in the poorest, most vulnerable communities

My institution, the International Water Management Institute, and other groups working on water can help address these crucial issues by supporting governments (the Parties, in the parlance of COP) in their efforts to meet the bold goals of the Paris Agreement. We can do this through the better provision of new scientific data. This will enable us to account for the growing unpredictability of water. In addition, we can use scientific innovation to develop new ways to measure and respond to unexpected changes in rainfall. Our collective effort at COP27 has laid some of that groundwork.

IWMI and several other organizations that focus on water use and water security planned several events at the Water Pavilion, a space set up and managed by the government of Egypt at COP27 to discuss and share experiences on the role of water in a changing climate. Our goal there was to emphasize the need to put water security at the center of the climate crisis. Led by the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, the Water Pavilion events mobilized more than 30 global organizations, institutions, governments and companies to deliver cutting-edge science-based advice to decision makers and negotiators.

Among what we shared was how satellite-based early-warning systems and scenario modeling can help identify robust solutions for water management. We showcased the importance of climate-smart agriculture as a means to ensure food security. Along with sessions on linking climate science to policy and financing, and the work my organization did at an important discussion on water security called a High Level Roundtable, we came together to make water a key part of climate discussion in a country and region where calling water security challenging is an understatement.

Our work at the Water Pavilion reflected the complex challenges of water in policymaking—allocation, sourcing, remediation, finance and investment—and the need for a fund to help countries cope with the water losses they will experience because of climate change. Our collaboration clearly explained the need for extreme hazard management, the effect of water instability on health and food availability, what happens to the environment when water changes, and how water is a driver of peace and cooperation. It showed what could happen when all the groups with a vested interest in some aspect of water did away with fragmented approaches and worked together. We were one voice at COP27, and that one voice built on last year’s effort to do what we have never truly been able to do before: put water on the table and make it one of the most important things there.

In reflection, and as we move forward to preparations for COP28, perhaps water organizations like mine need to change how we approach negotiations and commit to supporting COP representatives by delivering on a new scientific agenda for water, one that is capable of equipping decision makers, often governmental, with the best data and evidence they can use to navigate uncertainty and support their negotiations. The representatives have the clout, not us, and their decisions can change how governments and policymakers treat water in remediating and adapting to the climate crisis.

If the people in power leave water out of their decision-making, the world would face extreme loss. In addition to water as a destructive force and a life-giving force, it’s an economic force. The exorbitant costs of grain and the resulting food crisis caused by trade disruptions caused by the Ukraine war have been amplified locally because of water insecurity. Less food, less water, less productivity, more instability—it’s a cycle that will continue if we do not plan now how to survive both the dangers water can pose and the life it can give.

Resilient, nature-based solutions for water security are possible and yielding positive results. A project I work on in the Middle East and North Africa called Al Murunah is developing action-oriented field demonstrations and recommendations to improve the resilience of crop, livestock and fisheries production systems while protecting, sustainably managing and restoring ecosystems. The objective is to increase water security in Jordan, Lebanon, the occupied Palestinian Territories and Egypt through the integration of nature-based solutions for water and agricultural water management.

Water is complicated and simple at the same time. In the end, it’s about too much, too little, too poor quality in a particular place and time. A united voice for water accomplished something groundbreaking in November. We finally convinced the global political stage that the climate crisis is a water crisis. The real work starts now.

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