Climate adaptation: top priority, or just one of many?

Development Policy27 Feb 2013Julian Doczi

The implications of climate change on WRM and WASH need to be addressed in the post-2015 development agenda. 

Climate change is real, and certainly dangerous, but how urgently should the water sector be responding to it? While its impacts will be felt on every sector currently being discussed in the post-2015 negotiations, the water resources management (WRM) and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sectors will be hit particularly hard. The implications of predicted impacts by reports from the IPCC and DFID-WHO’s ‘Vision 2030’ are enormous, especially in monsoon climates, which include many of the developing world’s most vulnerable nations. There, rainy seasons may bring more intense rainfalls and floods, while dry seasons experience even less rainfall and suffer subsequent drought. Both of these extremes pose serious threats to WASH infrastructure, water quality, and water security, not to mention the huge potential damage they could cause to agricultural land and food security.

These are just a few of the serious projections for climate impacts on WRM and WASH, yet these sectors face a plethora of existing problems as well. The nearly 800 million people who still lack access to safe drinking water and the 2.5 billion who lack improved sanitation are just one such problem, as are issues like increasing water pollution, aging water infrastructure posing increasing financial burdens, water security conflicts in areas like the Middle East, and the overexploitation of groundwater resources in arid areas like North Africa. As a result, recent surveys of water service providers in the USA and in Asia have found that, although most utilities recognize the importance of climate adaptation, many have not yet acted in any substantial manner and neither have most governments.

So, when considering these existing problems and future impacts in the post-2015 context, how should the water sector respond? Should we prioritize action to adapt to climate change, knowing the serious impacts it will bring in the medium to long term, or should we treat it as just one of the many problems facing the WRM and WASH sectors? As experienced practitioners like Roger Calow of ODI and Charles Batchelor of IRC argue, these many problems facing our sectors are the primary drivers behind much of our vulnerability to climate impacts. So, by effectively addressing these problems, we would already be well on our way to building better climate resilience. However, we also cannot simply ignore the projected climate impacts, as some of the current ‘best practice’ in water management may actually lead to increased vulnerability to climate impacts (a.k.a. ‘maladaptation’) if not adjusted appropriately, especially related to current methods of designing water infrastructure based on historical flow data.

The best answer, to me, is one of comprehensive and knowledgeable risk management by water service providers and governments. General approaches like Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) are good ideals to aim for, where all relevant stakeholders in a river basin attempt to agree on a framework for sustainably managing their water resources in a way that considers and attempts to mitigate the main risks (be they climate-related or otherwise). There are a wide variety of other risk-screening tools and approaches – some specific to climate change – that can also help, such as water decision-making support tools, the OECD’s ‘Climate Lens’ approach, or water-climate tools like ORCHID or WEAP. Determining which one of these to use for specific contexts can be confusing, but many of their key principles are similar, basically emphasizing the need for a systematic and inclusive approach to decision-making on all types of risk.

What is most important in the context of post-2015 is for water sector professionals around the world to at least start discussing the implications of climate change for our work and whether tackling existing problems could build resilience against predicted impacts. Surely the urgency placed on climate adaptation will vary in different urban/rural or developed/developing contexts, but it is only through knowledge-sharing and open dialogues that we can decide the level of priority to devote towards tackling our existing problems versus our future ones. Time is short, so let’s get busy!