“Public awareness of risks can help policymakers understand the benefits of climate resilience”
Last summer Italy declared a state of emergency in five northern regions due to drought, and low precipitation over the winter months could mean another year of drought. The iconic city of Venice has also experienced problems with low water levels that made navigation impossible in some of its canals. SWM spoke with Valentin Aich, Senior Water and Climate Specialist, Global Water Partnership (GWP) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO), about the reasons behind the extreme drought affecting parts of Italy, the connections with a changing climate and barriers to adaptation.
As a water and climate specialist, Valentin mainly works for two programmes on flood (APFM) and drought (IDMP) management, which GWP and the WMO operate jointly, supporting countries and other stakeholders in becoming more resilient to flood and drought. They do so on three levels: raising awareness at the global level, providing guidance and sharing knowledge through trainings to increase capacities, and implementing projects and activities on the ground, such as supporting countries to set up early warning systems for flood and drought, and other measures to become more resilient.
Could you explain what factors have contributed to the current low water levels in Venice, and to what extent is this an unusual occurrence?
It was a combination of an abnormally low tide due to a full moon and a very stable high air pressure over northern Italy. This high is also a reason for the drought situation in the larger region.
The MOSE system to protect Venice from flooding started operations in 2020; are there any plans to mitigate or adapt to unusually low water in the canals?
Not to our knowledge. MOSE is specifically designed for flood situations and cannot be used to retain water in the bay.
Valentin Aich, Senior Water and Climate Specialist, Global Water Partnership (GWP) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO)
What kind of impacts are expected in Venice and the north of Italy in general in a warmer climate?
The Mediterranean is a hotspot of climate change including northern Italy and Venice. For Venice, the largest risk will be related to sea level rise and increasing storms and storm surges. MOSE is one of the ways to protect the city.
For northern Italy and the whole Mediterranean, there is a wide range of changes. The last IPCC Assessment Report lists several “key risks include[ing] increased water scarcity (notably in the south and east) and droughts (in the north), coastal risks due to flooding, erosion and saltwater intrusions, wildfire, terrestrial and marine ecosystem losses, as well as risks to food production and security, human health, well-being and cultural heritage.”
The Mediterranean is a hotspot of climate change including northern Italy and Venice
It further states: “Due to its particular combination of multiple strong climate hazards and high vulnerability, the Mediterranean region is a hotspot for highly interconnected climate risks. The main economic sectors in the region (agriculture, fisheries, forestry, tourism) are highly vulnerable to climatic hazards, while the socioeconomic vulnerability is also considerable. The low-lying areas are the most vulnerable areas for coastal climate-related risks (e.g., sea level rise, floods, erosion) and other consequent risks (e.g., saltwater intrusion and agriculture damage) (high confidence). Climate change threatens water availability, reducing river low flows and annual runoff by 5–70%, reducing hydropower capacity (high confidence). Yields of rainfed crops may decrease by 64% in some locations (high confidence). Ocean warming and acidification will impact marine ecosystems, with uncertain consequences on fisheries (low confidence). Desertification will affect additional areas, notably in the south and southeast (medium confidence). Burnt areas of forests may increase by 96–187% under 3°C, depending on fire management. Beyond 3°C, 13–30% of the Natura 2000 protected area and 15–23% of Natura 2000 sites could be lost due to climate-driven habitat change (medium confidence).”
Are visible impacts like the current threat to the canals and to Venice’s tourism leading to greater awareness of the need for ambitious adaptation measures?
For several years there is a stronger public interest and awareness towards climate and climate change-related challenges
Yes, it is indeed hard to close your eyes when facing such an accumulation of adverse weather patterns. For several years there is a stronger public interest and awareness towards climate and climate change-related challenges. Still, the necessary efforts to increase the resilience against such events are way too slow and little to respond adequately to the increasing risks. Adapting to these changes will be a continuous and long-term process for all societies in the Mediterranean and beyond, and there are still a lot more and intensive but also constructive discussions necessary in order to have the necessary attention and funding to react at the scale and speed needed.
What should be the priorities for decision-makers involved in water management in terms of climate change resilience?
First of all, it is important to understand that we need to get away from crisis management towards well-informed risk management. We need to be proactive, not reactive in the face of increasing water disasters like floods and droughts.
It is also important to have vertical and horizontal integration when managing flood and drought risk. Vertically means across all relevant administrative levels, from local municipalities, region, national, and on European and International levels. Horizontally means that we need to include all relevant sectors. For example, for drought, we often focus only on agricultural impacts, but the actual impacts are way more complex and spread across other sectors like energy, transport, forestry, industry, and health etc., We need to start monitoring these impacts in a more structured way to understand our vulnerabilities and build our resilience based on this analysis by engaging all sectors. And this does not only refer to the national authorities but also the private sector, and the public need to be engaged. It’s often the most vulnerable like people with disabilities, refugees, poor that are hit first by disasters but they are rarely part of preparedness planning.
What are the barriers that prevent moving from understanding climate change to implementing concrete adaptation measures?
We see adaptation happening all around us, e.g. when a company is not investing in ski resorts below a certain altitude anymore in the Alps or a farmer is planting more water-efficient species. However, in general, we see, and the increasing numbers of loss and damage show us clearly, that we are not adapting fast enough. And this is due to several bottlenecks. Often investing in flood and drought resilience is not interesting for policymakers since they think the chances of disasters happening in their election period are rather low and they are afraid of having no tangible outcomes. If for example, drought resilience building is successful, it will not be in the news anymore, so the public would almost not notice the success. A way to change this is through more public awareness of the risks so policymakers understand that it is also beneficial for them to invest in climate resilience.
Also, funding is still a big issue despite the agreed support for developing countries to invest 100 billion USD per year into adaptation and mitigation. The funds are not replenished fully and also the distribution mechanisms and access to that funding are often complicated, especially for developing countries. We as Global Water Partnership support countries in accessing this funding and we, together with many partners, help to scale adaptation up to the scale needed.
Imagine we are in Venice 20 years from now. What do we see, in a best-case scenario? And in a worst-case scenario?
Funding is still a big issue despite the agreed support for developing countries to invest 100 billion USD per year into adaptation and mitigation
In the best-case scenario, the world successfully fulfilled the Paris Agreement and could limit climate change to 1.5°C. That would also translate into a more stable occurrence of extremes, both flood and drought. In addition, our societies have adapted successfully to climate change, and we are resilient against flood and drought. As natural phenomena, they still occur, but since we have early warning capabilities and people know how to respond to save their lives and protect their property, floods have only little impact. Regarding drought, we have long range forecasting and all relevant sectors have plans in place that are activated at different levels of drought and we can mitigate almost all negative impacts of drought. That society is in general more resilient, including the most vulnerable.
In the worst-case scenario, we continue with business as usual in regard to climate change and floods and droughts will dramatically increase in the next 20 years, both in frequency and magnitude. We also continue as before in the crisis reaction mode and don’t manage the risk. This means we will have increasing losses of lives and property and especially the most vulnerable will be hit by drought.
We are quite confident that the worst-case scenario is not very likely and we hope and put all our efforts into getting as close as possible towards the best-case scenario.