OPINION: The world needs a new water agenda

by Mark Smith | @DMSmifffy | International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
Tuesday, 22 March 2022 07:00 GMT

People watch as water is released from the Ullibarri Gamboa reservoir following heavy rains and flooding in Ullibarri Gamboa, Spain, December 11, 2021. REUTERS/Vincent West

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As climate change boosts risks, water insecurity is growing – and needs a plan

Mark Smith is director general of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

From major floods in Germany and China last year and eastern Australia this year, to ongoing and prolonged droughts across North and East Africa, the world is confronting a new climate change-induced water reality.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently reported, the world is not doing nearly enough to bolster defences to risks and stresses caused by floods, droughts, sea level rises and glacial melt – and the window for action will close if warming beyond 1.5C outstrips capacities to adapt.

Yet, governments are still not putting water security at the centre of the climate crisis despite the profound implications of worsening water insecurity. From failing agriculture and food security, and disasters and disease, to heightened inequality, fragility and instability, ultimately, the poorest communities will be impacted the most. 

As climate change continues adding more energy to the global water cycle, the impacts of water insecurity will not stop there. Failing infrastructure and critical risks to business – caused by water scarcity, floods and extreme events – will weigh on the economy, and wash through the world’s financial system.

Governments and businesses have made ambitious commitments to the global energy transition, with the goal of rapidly cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Now, they must replicate this momentum for adapting to the inevitable impact of climate change by building the same sense of urgency and commitment to a transition to a water-secure world.

In doing so, however, it is vital to recognize that achieving water security is a radically different challenge than it was in the past. Before global heating began disrupting the climate, water management could rely on historical experience and data as a guide to future water risks. With droughts, floods and shifting monsoons now becoming less and less predictable because of climate change, this no longer holds true. 

As a consequence, the world needs a new scientific agenda for water that is capable of helping governments, the financial sector, communities and companies navigate the uncertain waters brought about by rapid changes in climate. 

This means new data to account for the growing unpredictability of water, and scientific innovation to develop new ways to measure and respond to unexpected changes in rainfall, rivers and reservoirs. 

For example, instead of basing policy and planning decisions on historical patterns of drought or monsoon seasons, or the likelihood of floods, governments and business need more flexible approaches guided by satellite-based early warning systems and scenario modelling that helps them identify robust options for water management and infrastructure. 

Better monitoring and accounting for water resources and patterns in real-time can ensure that policymakers, businesses, financiers, city leaders and farmers alike are not blinded to the risks of increasingly unpredictable water resources, offering – amidst all the uncertainty – the means to transition to a water-secure world.

Such innovations need to be developed and deployed as rapidly as possible, through new partnerships that bring together the policy, development, business and science communities, and reinforced by evidence-based action to ensure inclusion and women’s equality in water security, and that the resilience of the most vulnerable people is put first.

To achieve this, governments, businesses and philanthropy will need to learn to see water science as an investment, not a cost, towards a more water-secure and resilient world in which we all benefit. Global economic losses connected to water are estimated at $260 billion per year and are only likely to grow as the impact of rising temperatures and an intensifying water cycle becomes more apparent.

With greater recognition of the cost of inaction, the public and private sectors will have to release more investment into water research in key areas such as ways to recycle, harvest and store water, as well as techniques and infrastructure to reduce the risk of flooding and pollution.

Faced with unprecedented challenges created by climate change, the world needs a greater understanding of how water science can be mobilized to deal with them. Generating the science needed for a water-secure world will help the world win the race to withstand climate change and achieve the ambitions of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for sustainable development with no one left behind.