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"Long-term water security is key to climate change adaptation"

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Based at IE University, the Center for Water and Climate Adaptation aims to become a worldwide reference on sustainable water resources management for water security and climate change adaptation.

Leading the Center for Water and Climate Adaptation is Gonzalo Delacámara, a charismatic natural resources economist. With years of experience working for multilateral organizations in the EU, Latin America, the Caribbean, MENA region, Central and South Asia, Delacámara works as a water and climate change policy advisor, preaching the fundamental need to improve water services in order to achieve all Sustainable Development Goals. In this interview, Gonzalo tells us more about his newly appointed role and how to respond to climate change, one of the most complex challenges of our times.

First of all, could you tell us how you became involved with the Centre for Water & Climate Adaptation?

The IE Centre for Water & Climate Adaptation has been set up under the innovation ecosystem of IE University, a highly ranked academic institution founded 50 years ago. With over 140 nationalities represented on campus, more than 30 offices worldwide, and at least 1,200 faculty members from over 60 nationalities, we felt IE is an ideal environment for a global Centre like this.

The Centre’s ambition is to become a worldwide reference in terms of cutting-edge skills development for the private and public sectors

The life and soul of this initiative and Chair of the Centre is Carlos Cosín, CEO of Almar Water Solutions, part of Abdul Latif Jameel Energy. Carlos is also the incumbent President of the International Desalination Association. Since we met up several years ago, Carlos and I have a shared view towards sustainable water management. It is based on a contemporary and global approach to long-term water security and climate change adaptation and mitigation – we have both worked worldwide for the last decades – that encompasses the need to master complexity as part of sound water governance, and the idea that technology is key but as a means to an end.

On May 2022, I was appointed by IE as the Director of this new Centre. IE is highly committed to fostering sustainability, and this Centre is at the core of this effort.

What are the objectives of the Centre, and which strategic partners are you working with to achieve them?

The Centre’s ambition is to become a worldwide reference in terms of cutting-edge skills development for the private and public sectors and the civil society on sustainable water resources management for long-term water security and adaptation.

Thus, we aim at providing specialized knowledge and talent. We will therefore study the corporate, political (including geopolitical), economic, environmental, and societal dimensions of globally ensuring adaptation through long-term water security, from a transdisciplinary perspective. In other words, we build on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but mostly focus on economics, strategic financing, institutional analysis, and regulation.

We are signing strategic alliances with other universities worldwide, as well as with reputed think tanks, multilateral organizations (for instance, the Centre is now part of the OECD Water Governance Initiative), and also corporate organizations.

  • Biodiversity loss rates and the risks of potential ecosystem collapse are higher in aquatic ecosystems than in any other ecosystem type
  • Water is highly interconnected to many critical issues but the way those linkages are shaped is not always fully understood

At the moment, what would you say are the main barriers to addressing sustainable water management worldwide? What about climate change?

A major drawback, and one that is not specific to water management by the way, is the inability to acknowledge and address the fundamental uncertainties that stem from working under complexity. Water is highly interconnected to many critical issues but the way those linkages are shaped is not always fully understood. They are rather often downplayed, when not completely overlooked. A clear example is the difficulty to link in practice climate and water with wider socioeconomic goals.

Another major difficulty is the confusion between water resources management and water services delivery. They are intertwined, how could they not be? However, it is critical to understand that whilst water resources management shows some challenges, others, fundamentally different, compound those when referring to urban water management and other water services. Some are relevant at a basin level, others only at a plot or at an urban district level.

We increasingly face problems that derive from the overexploitation of surface and groundwater resources, thus increasing long-term scarcity, drought risk and occurrence. We also face an increased risk of flooding and waterlogging globally – sometimes, this happens in areas where chronic scarcity and drought events are the norm (i.e., California, Mediterranean basins…). Water quality degradation is also a major concern worldwide. Last but not least, biodiversity loss rates and the risks of potential ecosystem collapse are higher in aquatic ecosystems than in any other ecosystem type.

There are many drivers for these major challenges: a number of lock-ins (institutional, financial, technological…), the fact that water is systematically undervalued (as highlighted by the World Water Development Report 2021), the prevalence of strong (financial) incentives to make unsustainable choices, the pervasive weakness of vertical and horizontal sectoral policy coordination, sometimes the existence of old institutions unable to deal with new challenges, more often than not the lack of proper regulation to align individual interests and collective goals.

IE Exponential Learning’s mission is to provide tools to professionals with a lifelong learning mindset at every stage of their careers

Water-borne risks and weather and climate extreme events (including droughts and floods) are amplified (in frequency and intensity) by climate change. There is solid scientific evidence that we are set to go beyond the 1.5 °C threshold by 2040 – if all 165 UNFCCC parties that have agreed to non-binding carbon emission abatement plans were to comply, global temperature would still rise 2.7 °C. What is relevant is not change itself but its intensity and pace, for which humans are the main drivers. Besides, methane emissions seem to have remained, somehow, unnoticed for years despite the fact that their global warming impact is 84 times higher than that of CO2 over a 20-year period.

Long-term water security is key to climate change adaptation just as the energy transition is to climate change mitigation. Yet, whilst there is a roadmap for the latter, we still miss one for the former. Our Centre is committed to meaningfully contribute to this global effort.

Do you think the current geopolitical and the subsequent economic crisis will have an impact on climate change policies?

On 24 February 2022, when Vladimir Putin launched a “war of aggression” against Ukraine, planning a quick takeover and the establishment of the so-called “Russia-friendly” administration, a plausible explanation of this geopolitical conflict was the illegal and illegitimate ambition of a country to expand beyond its boundaries.

There are several other non-excluding explanations, though. The aggression against Ukraine can also be seen as an illustration of the dialectics between those who believe in liberal democracy as the best way to coexist versus those who advocate for autocracy and national populism. This war is also a good example of how the nature of power is changing: the extensive influence of non-state groups acting autonomously on the international stage, the extent to which relationships between states serve as key sources of power that are vital in shaping conflict outcomes, and the fact that boundaries between hard (military capabilities, economic wealth) and soft power (norms, ideas) are now blurred to a large extent.

At the IE Centre we feel it is critical to understand the differences between individual and collective adaptation strategies

However, I would like to highlight a third explanation. “Tectonic plate” shifts are happening at world scale on geopolitical grounds as a result of the decarbonisation of the economy required for climate change mitigation. China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the U.S., and the European Union, just to name a few, are far from being indifferent about strategic energy reserves, and Ukraine plays a central role in the supply of natural gas to western European countries.

By sparking a global energy crisis, the war also poses an indirect threat to global climate goals, in principle. The conflict has clearly exposed the world’s dependence on oil and gas that, in turn, funds Russia’s intervention. As western countries scramble for alternatives, it is already evident many are leaning toward even more polluting energy sources, promoting a fossil fuel “gold rush”.

Further, this conflict might put many U.S. promises on hold, in what I consider a pivotal moment for climate finance. Months after renewing its pledges at COP26, the U.S. has not yet passed any major climate legislation. The Biden administration has rolled back limits on domestic oil and gas drilling to cope with rising energy prices. Last spring, Congress allocated less than one third of the international climate funding it pledged.

As a way out to the potential supply cut of Russian natural gas, new liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities are now proposed in Canada, Germany, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands. Algeria, Egypt, Qatar, the U.S., have all signed deals to export LNG to the EU, while gas projects are also being invigorated in west Africa. If they are all implemented, they will either end up as massive, stranded assets or, I am afraid, they will lead into irreversible global warming. However, European countries could quickly mitigate gas dependence through energy efficiency and ramping up renewable energy investments.

Widely, the war seems likely to have a far-reaching effect on the world’s response to climate change, through the largest energy shock in decades. Yet, that could have both positive and negative consequences for the energy transition. In other words, Russia’s unprovoked invasion has driven a short-term spike in prices but could prompt a long-term shift towards sustainability.

Nowadays, do you think there is increasing interest from both public authorities and private companies in issues such as long-term water security or climate change adaptation?

The war seems likely to have a far-reaching effect on the world’s response to climate change, through the largest energy shock in decades

Overall, I feel we are not taking the climate emergency and the global water crisis too seriously. Those that will suffer more the unintended consequences of climate change and the water security crisis are not here to state their preferences. The lack of urgency is a clear drawback too: we have solid evidence from IPCC and also personal experience that climate change is happening. We basically know many solutions, but we show lack of attention (the war in Ukraine and the upcoming economic recession are now under the spotlight) and seem unable to take the short run needed sacrifices. As above, also in this case we would need institutional innovation to enforce international agreements – institutions should not only be international, but truly transnational and global. Further, unless inequity is addressed (both between wealthier and poorer countries and between high- and low-income citizens), it will be hard to implement the right solutions at the necessary scale.

Undoubtedly, closing the knowledge and skills gap in sustainable water management and climate change adaptation and mitigation is key to achieving a better life for current and future generations. What is the way to close that gap?

Most people make decisions at a professional level on the basis of knowledge and skills acquired in their 20s. That would not pose significant problems provided the world remained mainly unchanged. However, there is evidence that, in terms of climate and water policy, sometimes we plan for a world that does not exist anymore. IE Exponential Learning’s mission is to provide tools to professionals with a lifelong learning mindset who seek personal and professional growth at every stage of their careers. At IE we mainstream sustainability (and this of course includes water and climate) in undergraduate, graduate, and executive education programmes.

Demand for this kind of talent is already outstripping supply. We feel there is a need for fostering critical thinking, problem-solving, and self-management skills like resilience, which will definitely be among the most in demand if we are to approach global challenges, as those discussed in this interview, in a solid way.

  • We would need institutional innovation to enforce international agreements – institutions that are truly transnational and global

What role does the Centre for Water & Climate Adaptation play in this context?

The Centre will not just focus on education, though. We will be offering tailored educational programmes for the C suite, high-level public officers, civil society leaders, social innovators, multilateral organisations, etc. However, we will also work on impact-oriented research, building on internal resources, but also on top-notch world, external experts. Furthermore, we are highly committed to innovative outreach activities, as we see a major need for new narratives: new stories (or new ways of telling meaningful stories that we tend to bury on a daily basis), new relators (so as to prevent us all from self-indulgence and endogamy), new formats (moving away from conventional discussion panels that end up being a succession of unconnected monologues), and new channels (since oral and written communication is but one alternative, yet not the only one).

And finally, what are the expectations for the future in terms of climate change adaptation? Is there a solution?

Adaptation is not only a vital need, but also crucial to the analysis of climate change and climate action itself. The nature, speed and costs of adaptation are the key drivers of the cost of climate change. However, as Prof. Michael Hanemann (ASU, Berkeley), who has already been cooperating with us, has put it: “for the most part, the economic analysis of adaptation is superficial if not fatuous”. Adaptation involves changes in outlook, motivation, and preference; major behavioural changes; social and institutional reforms; technological progress; changes in the organization of economic activities. As is the case with circular economy or sustainability as such, adaptation is just rational behaviour, but it does not always happen spontaneously. At the IE Centre we feel it is critical to understand the differences between individual and collective adaptation strategies, to accept that we are dealing with future consequences, and to embrace higher levels of uncertainty. These can all impede and delay adaptations but ignoring them will actually prevent us from adapting. As John Lewis, the American politician and civil rights activist, said: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”.