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The global COVID-19 pandemic and a false sense of (water) security

About the blog

Gonzalo Delacámara
Global economist. Director, Centre for Water & Climate Adaptation, IE University. International consultant to the UN, WBG, OECD, and European Commission.

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  • The global COVID-19 pandemic and false sense of (water) security
  • *A slightly different and shorter version of this article was originally published in Spanish on CONAMA (El Congreso Nacional del Medio Ambiente – The Spanish National Environment Congress)’s blog on April 8th, 2020.

In psychology, the Need for Drama (NFD) is described as a complex trait of poorly adaptive personalities who tend to manipulate others from a position of victimism. In social terms, it is interpreted as the tendency to propose catastrophes and apocalyptic thoughts to demand aid and encourage mass mobilization.

Yet, our selective reaction to different dramas is quite baffling indeed. The expansion of the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) worldwide, illustrates one of the contemporary dramas that, in my view, is worth reflecting on: the relative loss of freedom in the name of increasingly demanding responses to preserve security.

Freedom and security are two inherent elements of any democratic society. As citizens, we are constantly debating, often without our even realising it, between defending our right to decide individually and the complexity of social conflicts in which, on many occasions, rational individual decisions lead to unsustainable collective outcomes, as in the so-called Isolation Paradox, enunciated by Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize Laureate in 1998. The need to adapt to climate change and to guarantee long-term water security is a good example of that. Ultimately, environmental conflicts are but a particular case of those social conflicts.

Long-term water security or the ability to adapt to climate change are public goods. However, we tend to downplay their relevance

In August 2019, which now feels like an eternity ago, the World Resources Institute (WRI), a think tank based in Washington D.C., updated the results of its far-reaching Aqueduct project. It showed that 17 countries (12 of them in the Middle East – not any region in terms of geopolitics), where already a quarter of the world population lives, suffer from extreme water stress. Spain hits 28th in the ranking: two thirds of its territory are at risk of desertification, as they are arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas subject to strong pressures in terms of water abstraction and emissions of polluting effluents.

In the presentation of that report, Andrew Steer, President and CEO of the WRI, said: “Water stress is the biggest crisis no one is talking about. Its consequences are in plain sight in the form of food insecurity, conflict and migration, and financial instability.” No one will be able to tell Dr Steer he did not warn us. (In September 2019, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, GPMB, co-convened by the World Bank and the UN World Health Organization, published its annual report, A World at Risk, in which it alerted of an increasing risk of severe epidemics and showed that the world, with almost no exception, was still unprepared. By paying attention to those experts, we would have possibly avoided a great deal of medieval fear and painful lockdowns).

As in the case of COVID-19, when managing water resources and climate change impacts, we will be doomed to endlessly manage crises

Citizens do not demand water per se. It is not an end in itself. What they do need is security: to feel reassured that their well-being will not be threatened (be it by lack of income, any form of violence, a serious threat to public health, extreme phenomena with the potential to cause damage...). Within this context, citizens demand a guarantee that water will neither be scarce as compared to their needs, nor too abundant with respect to their ability to manage floods, nor contaminated by toxic, hazardous substances... Long-term water security or the ability to adapt to climate change are public goods. However, as a society we tend to downplay their relevance, focusing on instrumental issues such as we did when damaging the strength of our public health system in general, or our epidemiological services in particular, let alone our investments in research, technological development, and innovation.

As in the case of COVID-19, when managing water resources and climate change impacts, we will be doomed to endlessly manage crises (i.e. increasingly intense and frequent droughts and floods), unless we move towards risk and opportunity management. In other words, it is essential to progress from ad hoc, reactive, impact remedial, sometimes unplanned approaches, towards proactive, pre-emptive and planned ones. As anyone feeling insecure would know (whatever the reason might be), there is no greater loss of freedom than pervasive insecurity, which prevents us from leading the life we long for.

Both the current global pandemic and climate emergency demand that personal sovereignty and collective solidarity are reconciled

Health, social and economic crises triggered by the global COVID-19 pandemic provide us with a good opportunity to draw some lessons regarding the design and implementation of public policies. Those lessons also apply to water resources management and climate change adaptation and mitigation, between which there are often ignored synergies.

I do not intend to be exhaustive, by all means, but it is worth exploring some of the lessons to be drawn from the current crisis in the face of upcoming critical events.

It seems of paramount importance to emphasize on the need to make decisions based on scientific evidence, something that entails, among many other things, reinforcing our capacity to generate relevant and verifiable information. All these global challenges show the value, the urgency, and the upmost importance of solid and accurate knowledge, striving to separate facts from hoaxes and to immediately discern the voices of those who really know from tricksters and charlatans.

It is also critical to acknowledge that whatever is global is also local to a large extent; that water security, like health, is not a local matter at all – whatever happens to others, to everyone that is not oneself, should be of our concern. Furthermore, this pandemic and the climate emergency share a feature: they are global (i.e. they may affect everyone) but they are far from being a great leveller (i.e. they affect us all in a different way), a myth that needs debunking.

The COVID-19 crisis, like the climate and water crises, more or less latent depending on where we live, is at the same time the crisis of the nation-state and a desperate call to articulate supranational solutions; as Francesc Trillas, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Applied Economics of the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, ​​puts it: “a greater federalization of resources, legal powers, data, and mindsets”.

We need worldwide governments with greater capacity, more intense and effective cooperation, stronger multilateral institutions

Though nowadays it may seem countercultural to say so, the collective project of building the European Union is one of the most thrilling political endeavours ever. The European Union is far from being just a common market. It is also a political community characterized by sharing basic political and social values: equality, dignity, peace, solidarity, freedom, and a wide range of social rights recognized for all European citizens.

Last but not least, it is a pressing issue to recognize that these are challenges that demand collective action, through aligning individual interests and collective objectives. In other words, both the current global pandemic and climate emergency demand that personal sovereignty and collective solidarity are reconciled.

Experts on pandemics say that for one to occur, even the most lethal of viruses would have to meet three conditions: be one that humans have not faced before (so that there are no antibodies), that it has the capacity to increase premature mortality rates and that it is easily contagious. Many of those features are common to long-term water insecurity and climate change.

During the influenza A (H1N1 / 09) pandemic, which threatened us all between January 2009 and August 2010, Margaret Chan, former WHO Director-General, stated: "We have a false sense of security." There you go. We definitely need worldwide governments with greater capacity, more intense and effective cooperation, stronger multilateral institutions, and social norms to promote outcome-oriented investment and less consumption in the medium and long term. The path to be taken is not set in stone.

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