Water - an overlooked key aspect in the climate discourse

Source(s): Water Science Policy

Pär Holmgren

  • The effects of climate change impact vulnerable communities across the world the most
  • At the same time, these communities have often contributed the least to the causes of climate change
  • The EU should increase investments in WASH in countries more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and prioritise an essential, holistic strategy for climate adaptation

I have worked with climate-related issues throughout most of my career, including twenty years as a meteorologist at the Swedish public service television and now as a politician. It has long been obvious to me that most of the climate change impacts are about water, not the least in the short term. Our near future is characterised by either too much or not enough water, as both droughts and floods become more frequent and extreme. There is and will be access to water - but not always when we need it and sometimes in excessive quantities. Moreover, the question who will have access to this water is and will continue to be a question of severe inequalities. 

When talking about lack of drinking water, extreme floods or depleting groundwater, I think most people’s attention is often drawn to other places in the world than North America or Western Europe. However, the challenges that climate change creates in these areas are real threats to water security. For instance, in the aftermath of the storm in Texas this winter, millions of Texans were struggling for drinking water. A few years ago, in my own hometown, extreme floods transformed one of the biggest train stations in Sweden into a swimming pool. Furthermore, climate change has forced many cities in Europe and the US to drill even deeper for groundwater. 

Yet, these impacts are nothing compared to those experienced in parts of Africa or Asia. Climate change already has a huge impact on vulnerable communities across the world. The grotesque irony is that the ones suffering the worst consequences of climate change, have contributed the least to the causes of it. Conversely, the ones with the greatest responsibility often have the greatest economic power and, not the least in countries like Sweden, somewhat larger margins when it comes to adaptation. These are people who can buy expensive bottled water when the taps run out, or flee to another part of the world when their old homes have become impossible to inhabit.

I am not the first to call attention to the economic and social injustice of climate change. However, it is important to take this aspect into serious consideration when we discuss water policy and diplomacy. Access to clean water represents a critical aspect of preparedness and resilience. It can and will be a matter of life or death.

Projections show that already by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions facing absolute water scarcity. Today, out of global climate finance, only five percent is allocated to climate adaptation, and just one percent to protecting and providing clean water for vulnerable communities. In some of the country’s most vulnerable to climate change, less than one euro per person, per year, is spent on making water services climate resilient, despite the fact that roughly one-third of the world’s population lives in water-stressed areas and that climate change will further test the resilience of both the availability of safe water and of sanitation systems.

There are many examples. In South Sudan, millions need aid to get access to water and sanitation. Moreover, the struggle for clean water is even an important factor behind kidnappings and rape. In the Israel-Palestine conflict, the access to and distribution of water has been an issue since at least 1967, which adds further hardship to the already deadly conflict. In India, big corporations’ (eg. Coca Cola) water consumption has led to groundwater depletion, pollution and turned an entire state “drought-hit”. 

The world is a vulnerable place. Water is perhaps the most perfect example of that. The human right of access to water is fundamental for life, and the lack of water security is one of the greatest threats to humanity today. I see this as a central insight for politicians who work with environmental issues. 

The European Commission’s president has pledged to lead a ”Geopolitical Commission”; and the EU‘s Green Deal is one of its key priorities. Water is expressly mentioned as a sub-objective under the Green Deal’s priorities, which is encouraging, but we are yet to see this pledge taken seriously. Water, sanitation and transboundary aspects of water management have to be mainstreamed into both national adaptation plans and global climate action. 

I believe that rebalancing climate finance to target the poorest communities can make a huge difference in adaptation and resilience outcomes. EU delegations are currently preparing Team Europe Initiatives, to contribute to the global EU response to Covid-19. In this context, we need to ensure that investments in WASH target communities are prioritized that contribute least to climate change yet are more vulnerable to its effects. This is an essential strategy for climate adaptation. We need an urgent increase in the quantity and the quality of adaptation finance, and investment in WASH is one way of ensuring that quality finance reaches the people on the frontlines of the current crises.

Last year, the World Meteorological Organisation stated that there is a twenty percent risk that we reach a global warming of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels already within the next four years. Within the next decade we will most likely be above 1.5 degrees, heading towards two degrees. We urgently need both climate mitigation and adaptation, and water is an essential component of both. We need to step up legislative measures and international efforts to ensure a sustainable management of water. In all of the EU’s domestic and international policies, we also need to pay far greater attention to the nexus between climate change, health, and gender, because of the compounding risks associated with the different - but closely interlinked - crises. If we do not, the most vulnerable populations on Earth will suffer the most.

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