By Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs, Kingdom of The Netherlands & Stuart Orr, WWF Global Freshwater Lead
On World Water Day, it is time to remind us all once again that the climate crisis is a water crisis. That climate disasters are primarily water disasters. And that the way we value and manage our world’s water and freshwater ecosystems is the key to building more resilient societies, economies and ecosystems — and successfully preparing ourselves for the future.
We strongly believe that leveraging water has to be at the heart of all global efforts to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of the changing climate — impacts that will “most immediately and acutely be felt through water”, such as extreme floods, storms and droughts.
Water is the leverage for sustainable development and climate action. It can be used as a leverage for tackling social, economic, cultural and ecological challenges. The availability of clean drinking water safeguards health, education and development, equal opportunities and inclusive sustainable growth. Preserving our freshwater ecosystems and natural freshwater resources ensures the resilience of our societies.
But the world has long been wilfully burying its head in the sand, or should we say “in the water”. Reacting in horror (and vast amounts of humanitarian aid) to the tragic impacts of extreme floods, droughts and other water-related climate crises but not taking the obvious next step: start valuing water and focusing on fixing our rivers and other freshwater ecosystems — which we have wrecked — because they are the key to unlocking a sustainable, resilient and equitable future for all.
As climate change has risen up the public agenda, there has been a growing recognition that we not only need to mitigate its extent by reducing emissions, but that we also need to adapt to its consequences. However, too little of that adaptation effort — as slow, piecemeal and poorly funded as it has been thus far — has been directed towards water and the freshwater systems on which human society and nature rely. Preparedness and resiliency pay dividends for people and nature.
And we must invest in building an enabling environment: investing millions in collaborative efforts to pave the way for the billions that are required for the projects that will prepare our societies for the challenges ahead. It’s time to put a stop to stupid, unsustainable infrastructure, which pays off in the short term — from a purely economic perspective — but is devastating for rivers, wetlands and resiliency and has disastrous impacts on marginalized communities and biodiversity, undermining food security and economies in the long run.
We need to leverage water in a new ways, piloting innovative approaches — and then scaling up the successes.
Such as Water as Leverage for Resilient Cities Asia, which focuses on an inclusive, collaborative and comprehensive approach to develop truly transformative climate adaptation projects. A mechanism through which future understanding becomes an inspiration and drives innovation forward, and which includes everyone in the process — bankers and investors are as much a part of this as policymakers and politicians, as community leaders, NGOs, academics and the businesses that develop these solutions.
Take the City of 1000 Tanks project in the Indian city of Chennai. Developed collectively, this inspiring initiative aims to collect rainwater, treat wastewater and reduce runoff pollution with a variety of Nature-Based Solutions, while helping to recharge the city’s aquifer, reducing the CO2 footprint, mitigating flooding and building climate awareness.
The reality is that our man-made systems are not fit for the future. Our cities are built to be impermeable. They have no capacity to absorb the rain or slow the flood, no sewage systems that can mitigate extreme water events. Their concrete strength leaves them vulnerable to climate crises. And we have wrecked our freshwater ecosystems too. Our rivers have been turned into channels — into (usually polluted) water pipes. They used to meander and shrink and grow depending on the flows, yet are now ‘controlled’ within man-made walls and barriers — barriers that have been engineered according to outdated standards. And when the floods hit, we lose ‘control’ because the river system can can no longer absorb excess water as nature intended. The result — our most fragile communities and most vulnerable people are the hardest hit.
Few places are as vulnerable to the worsening impacts of the climate emergency as Asia’s great river deltas. Home to 10 megacities and hundreds of millions of the world’s most marginalised people, they are also some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet for freshwater and marine species. Yet climate change threatens to overwhelm them, undermining any hopes of sustainable development by exacerbating the damage that has been caused by decades of blinkered development decisions, which have undervalued water and neglected the health of the rivers that sustain them.
A new initiative, driven by WWF, the Dutch government and the Global Commission for Adaptation, and with support from World Economic Forum, aims to increase the ability of Asia’s deltas to withstand these multiple threats. The Resilient Asian Deltas initiative is intended to help stop the deltas of the Indus, Ganges, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Pearl and Yangtze from flooding, sinking and shrinking. And build political will and financial support for — sustainable solutions to systemic threats in their coastal environments and also, critically, upstream.
For example, by properly factoring in the impacts on deltas from activities such as the construction of new hydropower dams and sand mining, which reduce the flow of the sediments that replenish deltas, policy makers can make better decisions, and ensure development works with, rather than against, nature.
Restoring delta resilience is among the most effective climate adaptation strategies for the region. It is also one of the best opportunities to bend the global biodiversity curve in terms of numbers of species at risk. And decrease social inequalities and increase regional security. Advancing the agenda impacts the full 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This requires swift political action at both the national and regional level, as well an improved understanding across sectors of the economic, social and environmental case for change and the commitments of public and private investors to put their money where the mouth of Asia’s great rivers are.
But only if global warming is reined in. Scaling up adaptation is essential but it is no substitute for mitigation. The world still needs to focus on slashing greenhouse gas emissions. Building with nature addresses both — helping to reduce emissions and enhance the health of ecosystems and human environments at a fraction of the cost of concrete-based, business-as-usual approaches. And again healthy freshwater ecosystems have a vital role to play. Peatlands, in particular, are extraordinary carbon sinks; protecting and restoring them would make a significant contribution to global emissions reductions and to resilient livelihoods for millions of people.
We know our climate has already changed. And even if we do limit global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees, we will still need to adapt to the harsher realities of our altered world.
And to do that effectively we have to prioritise water and freshwater ecosystems. Failing to do so will lead to human, ecological and economic catastrophe. Doing so will save lives, protect nature and underpin sustainable economic development.
Water is our best asset, we better start valuing it now.
For more, read this year’s World Water Development Report on water and climate change