The 5th Water Dialogues, to be held in Madrid on October 2nd, are annual meeting fora held to discuss different topics, in order to promote the exchange of knowledge and experiences on issues of interest for the water sector between Latin America and Spain. This time, the focus will be 'Water and resilience to the effects of climate change'.
We have interviewed Raúl Salazar, Chief of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) Regional Office for the Americas, on the occasion of this event.
Question: What are the main challenges for the water sector in Latin America?
Answer: The region has one third of the world's freshwater resources, with 22,929 m3 per person per year, almost 300% the global average. However, it is also true that water resources are unevenly distributed across the region; in some areas water is abundant and yet other areas are very arid; also, 80% of the rain falls during a few months of the year.
Climate change is increasing flood and drought episodes; this jeopardises the drinking water supply, as well as agricultural and industrial uses (*Source: iagua.es).
Integrated flood management must address the source of the problem, including the degradation of ecosystems in river basins, urban settlements in wetlands, and the marginalisation and exclusion of population groups that are displaced to cities — fleeing rural areas due to economic reasons — and who, in general, settle in areas that are more exposed to floods or directly in flood plains (*Source: Proceedings VI Regional Platform).
Climate change is increasing flood and drought episodes
The investment in flood control infrastructure must increase. In this regard, river basin management plans must be long term plans, and include both structural and non-structural measures; they require political support and infrastructure investment, considering that their payback is about 7 USD per dollar invested. (*Source: Proceedings VI Regional Platform).
International basins comprise about half of our planet's surface area, and the fact that many water bodies share borders means they share risks and challenges, so solutions need to be coordinated. With this in mind, the Sendai framework stresses the importance of transboundary cooperation (including sharing hydro-meteorological data). Transboundary cooperation is necessary and beneficial during the development and implementation of a joint strategy to manage the risk of disasters. (*Source: Words into Action Implementation guide for addressing water - related disasters and transboundary cooperation)
Q: How is climate change affecting the frequency and intensity of extreme events in the region?
A: Climate change is increasing the risk of disasters. Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of natural phenomena which lead to an increased risk of disasters, and that threatens sustainable development.
The economy of the region of the Americas and Caribbean is the most affected by disasters related to climate events. From 1998 to 2017, the region experienced 53% of the global economic losses due to climate-related disasters. (*Source: Economic losses, poverty & disasters 1998-2017)
The investment in flood control infrastructure must increase
Disasters are increasing due to climate change. In 2017, disasters caused by natural hazards led to 60% of the displacements worldwide, affecting 18,8 million people in 135 countries. Recently, Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, affecting more than 70,000 people who lost their homes overnight. (*Source: UNDRR UNCAS)
Climate change is expected to increase displacements due to disasters, as meteorological phenomena become increasingly frequent and intense, particularly in developing countries. Additional risk factors such as rampant and unplanned urbanisation, population growth, poverty, conflicts, poor governance and environmental degradation exacerbate those phenomena and intensify the needs of those affected. (*Source: Words into Action guidelines - Disaster displacement: How to reduce risk, address impacts and strengthen resilience. UNDRR 2019)
In Latin America, climate change has intensified the impact of El Niño, especially in terms of the intensity of high temperatures, precipitation as rainfall, droughts and floods, which have caused important crop losses and food insecurity.
Q: What is the role of UNDRR in the management of disasters caused by extreme hydro-meteorological phenomena?
A: The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) works to substantially reduce the risk of disasters and losses, to ensure a sustainable future, supporting monitoring and implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030). The approach is based on avoiding creating new disaster risks, reducing existing risks and strengthening resilience, focusing efforts on risk management rather than disaster management.
The economy of the region of the Americas and Caribbean is the most affected by disasters related to climate events
The UNDRR supports countries and other society actors to have a better understanding of disaster risks, learning about past damages and losses in order to anticipate multi-threat scenarios that include flooding, and make risk-informed development decisions. Risk is understood from a systemic approach, that is, phenomena that impact different sectors, so for example droughts or floods have an impact on health, food security, instability and migrations, among others.
With this information we support the development of national and local plans to reduce the risk of disasters, which establish the priorities for mitigation and prevention at the national level, and at the local and urban level.
UNDRR advocates for increased public and private investment to create resilient societies, having resilient economies and infrastructure which are protected and continue to work after a disaster.
Q: What are your expectations from this 5th Water Dialogues?
A: One week after the Climate Action Summit and just one month prior to COP 25, this meeting provides us all an important opportunity to commit to accelerated climate action to reduce the risk of disasters, particularly those linked to floods that have a significant impact in our region.
In 2017, disasters caused by natural hazards led to 60% of the displacements worldwide, affecting 18,8 million people in 135 countries
We are reminded once and again that the most vulnerable people are the most severely affected by floods. This is happening in the American continent and the Caribbean, where the most vulnerable population are most affected by disasters which are caused to a great extent by climate change.
We can only overcome this challenge changing our approach to disaster management towards disaster prevention, through the management and mitigation of risks.
And to realise this paradigm change contemplated in the Sendai Framework, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) supports the countries in the region of the Americas and the Caribbean, in collaboration with our UN system sister organisations and other partners. The first step to manage risk is understanding the past, the historical losses experienced by a country due to disasters, in terms of human lives, livelihoods, and the economy. Most countries, and in particular the countries in our region, do not have enough systematic information about past losses resulting from disasters, particularly about the economic impact, and in this case the UNDRR supports the creation of a national database about losses caused by disasters. Currently, 19 countries have those databases available, and we work with governments to update them regularly.
The impacts of climate change are expected to have cascading effects on human health and well-being, as well as many sectors of our economy, thus leading to a greater risk of disasters. Therefore, my expectations are to share the disaster risk reduction approach in the Sendai framework in order to reduce the risk of disasters, in particular the risk of floods and droughts in urban environments.
At the same time, the Water Dialogues provide an opportunity to learn about water resource management experiences in Ibero-America, to increase the resilience of the sector to extreme climate events.