In most policy discussions, “water” has a very narrow definition in colloquial language. However, a broader, pragmatic, and positive set of talking points about water can serve as a powerful diplomatic tool for communicating coherence and resilience across sectors. In the words of a former US State Department official:
“I am not interested in water for engineering or pipes and pumps. Water is more than [Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6]’s emphasis on rural sanitation and healthcare. I am interested in water because it allows me to talk about international diplomacy, economic development, and environmental issues.”
Climate change further highlights the scope of water issues: our best pathways for effective climate mitigation, reducing negative climate impacts, and building climate resilience also come through the lens of water. Here, there are three ways that water is typically discussed in the context of climate change, particularly in relation to Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), and climate finance. Weaving together three narratives of water – as a hazard, a sector, and a climate connector – provides a useful framework for engagement and partnership.
First: Water as a hazard
In 2009, Claudia Sadoff and Mike Muller wrote presciently that “Water is the primary medium through which climate change will impact people, ecosystems, and economies.” Indeed, this World Water Day immediately follows the release of a major Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. Water issues dominate this IPCC report, particularly through the water and climate words we typically hear in the media: droughts, floods, famines, fires, cyclones, typhoons, hurricanes, and so on. Water is largely regarded as a hazard by the IPCC (though the most recent assessment report advises the use of “water-based adaptation”). Listening to the proceedings at COP26 in Glasgow, almost every formal speech echoed this view — the phrase “floods and droughts” resounded through the hallways every day.
Water is indeed a hazard, and the hazards associated with water are in fact intensifying and growing more significant with climate change. However, there is a limitation to this way of seeing water. Framing water primarily as a hazard may alarm people but doesn’t necessarily tell them about what they should be doing instead. The hazard of water ignores the systems in which water is embedded. Indeed, the language of floods and droughts is not very actionable beyond a defensive, castellated posture. Generating policy around water as a hazard is reactive and challenging — and typically limited to Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR).
Second: Water as a sector
The other common way of talking about water is as a “sector,” alongside other sectors like energy, agriculture, cities, healthcare, or transport. The water sector is quite a narrow space. As suggested above, the water sector is in fact largely made up of pipes and pumps: how we store water, transport it, prepare water for drinking, or treat waste; it includes our city utilities, and provisioning toilets for rural schools. Overall, the sector is large and important, and it is often a major focus of Official Development Assistance (ODA) and investment. As discussed above, the water sector is also an important target for climate adaptation and resilience efforts. Indeed, water utilities were among the first groups to develop technical strategies to reduce or avoid climate impacts. There are now much broader practical, investment, and policy efforts to use these insights more generally for rural and peri-urban Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) projects. More work is necessary to transform the water sector into a truly resilient space. By itself, the “water sector” is insufficient for how we should be describing and conceptualising water, since the terminology doesn’t reflect water in its full and rich reality.
Third: Water as a climate connector
What we have learned over the last decade since linking water and climate change is that water is more than a medium of climate impacts. Water is also the medium of climate action and coherent resilience. From this viewpoint, water is embedded within our energy, agriculture, healthcare, and transport systems. Water is central to how different parts of urban landscapes work together. Water is at the heart of our DRR planning and response. Indeed, water is central to how we manage ecosystems sustainably, is the ultimate connector between sectors, and binds our economies into a coherent whole.
Climate change threatens to unbind those linkages — note the hazard and sector language again — but resilient water management is a new and emerging set of insights and practices that recognise the dynamic, shifting, and sometimes uncertain nature of how water-related climate impacts can ripple through ecosystems, economies, and communities. Tools like the Adaptation Action Coalition’s Water Tracker for National Climate Planning, supported by the UK and Dutch governments, are designed to reveal these connections so that we build explicit, resilient paths and make effective and adaptive tradeoffs between sectors and between our economies and our natural capital.
One example of seeing water as a connector is the growing importance of groundwater in the context of climate change— no doubt, a reason that groundwater is the theme for World Water Day 2022. Groundwater is the largest reservoir of freshwater on the planet, yet the invisibility of aquifers means that we often ignore or misuse that reservoir. South Asia, for instance, has famously over-extracted its groundwater in regions such as the Punjab of both India and Pakistan. California’s 1,200-year scale drought has led to its rich Imperial Valley farmlands extracting so much groundwater that land levels have at times subsided more than 1 foot/year (30 cm).
Groundwater is also a powerful asset. When we manage and monitor withdrawals and recharge, groundwater can be a significant nature-based solution, potentially outperforming big surface storage dams. Much of eastern and southern Africa is only beginning to tap into regional groundwater resources in collaboration with groups such as the British and German Geological Surveys. In California, an innovative programme has linked the decline in snowpack with increasing flood risk to capture flash floods in groundwater recharge zones on privately owned farmland. This simultaneously reduces flash flood impacts while storing those waters underground for the increasingly long dry season. These insights, which involve a more integrative and transformative approach to solving problems in context of climate uncertainty, are exactly what we need to address climate change impacts at scale.
Climate change is a threat, but it’s also an opportunity to fix our economies, infrastructure, and institutions so that they can adapt to a shifting climate and nature, moving us from efficient economies to resilient systems. Prosperity and equity should be our goals with climate change, not just reducing the negative impacts of climate change. We can thrive in a shifting climate by building resilience. Water is integral to this process, and when thought of as a climate connector rather than a stand-alone hazard or sector, water is our most powerful climate solution.
John Matthews is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA).
This blog was published as part of K4D’s World Water Day campaign. Other outputs include a briefing pack, briefing note, and talking head videos from subject matter experts. To follow the latest evidence and analysis on water and beyond, follow K4D on Twitter.