Each year, to celebrate World Water Day, held annually on March 22, UNESCO launches the World Water Development Report (WWDR) on behalf of UN-Water. Entitled ‘Water and Climate Change,’ this year’s report focuses on helping the water sector find the most efficient ways to combat the challenges of global warming. The report also highlights the opportunities that improved water management offers in terms of adaptation and mitigation.
We speak with Richard Connor, Editor in Chief of the United Nations World Water Development Report (WWDR), to learn more about the briefing’s main conclusions.
Question: Firstly, we would like to know briefly your career path and your current role in UNESCO?
Answer: I’m an environmental scientist with a background in the biogeochemical cycling of nutrients in coastal ecosystems, with an M.Sc. in Biogeochemistry from McGill University (Canada).
For the past 25 years of my career, I worked on a wide variety of international projects as recognized specialist in water resources management, climate change adaptation, flood risk management and the water-energy nexus for the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, the World Water Council, the Co-operative Programme on Water and Climate (Netherlands), the Asia-Pacific Water Forum, the OECD, and several provincial/state and national governments.
I started working part-time as a consultant for the UNESCO World Water Assessment (WWAP) programme in 2007, and since 2014, I have been the Editor in Chief of the United Nations World Water Development Report (WWDR), published annually by UNESCO on behalf of UN-Water.
Q: Which organizations and stakeholders has the UN worked with on this report?
A: This latest edition of the WWDR is the result of a concerted effort between the Chapter Lead Agencies: FAO, SIWI, UNDP, UNESCO-IHP, UNESCO WWAP, UN-Habitat, UNU-INWEH, WHO, WMO and the World Bank; with regional perspectives provided by GWP, ODI, UNECA, UNECE, UNECLAC, UNESCAP, UNESCO Office in Nairobi and UNESCWA. The Report also benefitted to a great extent from the inputs and contributions of several other UN-Water members and partners, as well as from numerous scientists, professionals and NGOs who provided a wide range of relevant material.
Q: Why has UN Water chosen ‘Water and Climate Change’ as this year’s theme?
A: Every year UN-Water Members and Partners set a theme for World Water Day, which also sets the theme for the WWDR. This happens through a consultative process which draws on UN-Water Members and Partners’ experience and expertise on current and future global water related challenges.
Water is the medium through which climate change will affect societies and the environment the most
I did not take part in these deliberations, but climate change certainly is a critical issue for all. Furthermore, water is the medium through which climate change will affect societies and the environment the most. So, it is certainly a logical decision. Furthermore, with the 6th IPCC assessment report due out later this year, the timing seems appropriate as well.
Q: What are the 2020 World Water Development Report’s main conclusions?
A: Adaptation and mitigation are complementary strategies for managing and reducing the risks of climate change through water. While it is essential for water management to adapt to climate change (from countering the effects of floods to addressing increasing water stress for agriculture and industry), water management can also play a very important role in climate change mitigation. Water efficiency measures have a direct effect on energy savings, which can lead to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Specific water management interventions such as conservation agriculture, wetland protection and other nature-based solutions can help to sequester carbon in biomass and soils. Advanced wastewater treatment can help reduce GHG emissions while supplying biogas as a source of renewable energy (see more on this at the end of the document).
Embracing adaptation and mitigation measures through water is a triple-win proposal
Embracing adaptation and mitigation measures through water is a triple-win proposal. First, it benefits sustainable water resources management and the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. Second, it directly addresses both the causes and impacts of climate change, including extreme weather events. And third, it contributes, directly and indirectly, to meeting several of the SDGs: hunger, poverty, health, industry, and so on – not to mention SDG 6, the 'water' goal itself!
Q: What does the Paris Climate Agreement mean for water policy?
A: In the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) submitted by countries as part of the Paris Agreement, water is, in many cases, recognized in terms of policy statements or broad strategies – usually in terms of adaptation. But few NDCs actually include the intention to prepare a specific water plan. And while a majority of countries acknowledge water in their NDC’s ‘portfolio of actions’, fewer have estimated the related costs of these actions, even fewer have included detailed water-related project proposals. Clear synergies between adaptation and mitigation opportunities through water are practically non-existent in the NDCs.
There is an urgent need for greater communication and cooperation between the water and climate communities. The disconnect remains abundantly clear at the policy level as well – most obviously in the fact that the term ‘water’ is completely absent from the Paris Agreement. On the one hand, it is imperative that the climate change community, and climate negotiators in particular, give greater attention to the role of water and recognize its central importance in addressing the climate change crisis. On the other hand, it is equally (if not more) essential that the water community focuses its efforts to promote the importance of water in terms of both adaptation and mitigation, develop concrete water-related project proposals for inclusion in NDCs, and strengthen the means and capacities to plan, implement and monitor water-related activities in NDCs (prior to the 2020 NDC review and beyond).
The term ‘water’ is completely absent from the Paris Agreement
Water resources management and water supply and sanitation services are currently underfinanced and in need of greater attention from governments. Although there are significant sources available from the Climate Change funds, most of that has been earmarked for mitigation, and has thus not been available for financing water interventions which have generally been considered from an adaptation perspective. However, there are increasing opportunities to more genuinely and systematically integrate adaptation and (especially) mitigation planning into water investments, rendering these investments and associated activities more appealing to climate financiers. Furthermore, various water-related climate change initiatives can also provide co-benefits such as job creation, improved public health, reduced poverty, the promotion of gender equality and enhanced livelihoods, among others, further strengthening their ’bankability’ in the eyes of financiers.
Q: To create a sustainable future, business as usual is no longer an option. What measures do you recommend companies put in place to save water?
A: The water-related effects of climate change generate risks to business and power generation. Water stress can put a halt to manufacturing or energy generation. Impacts will also carry into operational aspects, affecting the supply of raw materials, disrupting supply chains, and causing damage to facilities and equipment.
For business, water stress is one of the main drivers for water reuse and efficiency
For business, water stress is one of the main drivers for water reuse and efficiency. In concert with technology, a facility could look at day-to-day operations such as the use of washwater, and better monitoring and leak detection. On an expanded scale, a company might evaluate its water footprint and include those of its suppliers, which may have far-reaching effects if they are large water users.
Q: How will climate change impact on fresh water security?
A: Global water use has increased by a factor of six over the past 100 years and continues to grow steadily at a rate of about 1% per year as a result of increasing population, economic development and shifting consumption patterns. Combined with a more erratic and uncertain supply, climate change will aggravate the situation of currently water-stressed regions, and generate water stress in regions where water resources are still abundant today. Physical water scarcity is often a seasonal phenomenon, rather than a chronic one, and climate change is likely to cause shifts in seasonal water availability throughout the year in several places.
Climate change manifests itself, amongst others, in the increasing frequency and magnitude of extreme events such as heatwaves, unprecedented rainfalls, thunderstorms and storm surge events.
Water quality will be adversely affected as a result of higher water temperatures, reduced dissolved oxygen and thus a reduced self-purifying capacity of freshwater bodies. There are further risks of water pollution and pathogenic contamination caused by flooding or by higher pollutant concentrations during drought.
Many ecosystems, particularly forests and wetlands, are also at risk. The degradation of ecosystems will not only lead to biodiversity loss, but also affect the provision of water-related ecosystem services, such as water purification, carbon capture and storage, and natural flood protection, as well as the provision of water for agriculture, fisheries and recreation.
Much of the impacts of climate change will be manifested in the tropical zones where most of the developing world can be found
Much of the impacts of climate change will be manifested in the tropical zones where most of the developing world can be found. Small island developing states are typically environmentally and socio-economically vulnerable to disasters and climate change, and many will experience increasing water stress. Across the planet, drylands are expected to expand significantly. Accelerated melting of glaciers is expected to have a negative effect on the water resources of mountain regions and their adjacent lowlands.
Despite the growing evidence that the changing climate will affect the availability and distribution of water resources, some uncertainties remain, especially at local and basin scales. While there is not much disagreement about the temperature increases, which have been simulated by different General Circulation Models (GCMs) under specific scenario conditions, more variability and ambiguity exist in projected precipitation trends. Often, trends in extremes (heavier precipitation, heat, prolonged droughts) show a clearer direction than trends in annual precipitation totals and seasonal patterns.
Q: How do you think that impact on water security could resonate in other areas, namely food, health and energy?
A: I feel that the potential impacts are well relatively known. I would argue that that needs to be understood are the actions that can be taken in water-dependent sectors, such as agriculture, and energy, to both improve water use efficiency (adaptation) and contribute to lowering greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) while improving the overall performance of these sectors.
Food and agriculture
The specific challenges for agricultural water management are twofold. The first is the need to adapt existing modes of production to deal with higher incidences of water scarcity and water excess (flood protection and drainage). The second is to ‘decarbonize’ agriculture through climate mitigation measures that reduce GHG emissions and enhance water availability. The scope for adaptation in rainfed agriculture is determined largely by the ability of crop varieties to cope with shifts in temperature and to manage soil water deficits. Irrigation allows cropping calendars to be rescheduled and intensified, thus providing a key adaptation mechanism for land that previously relied solely on precipitation.
Agriculture has two main avenues for mitigation of GHGs: carbon sequestration through organic matter accumulation above and below the ground, and emission reduction through land and water management, including adoption of renewable energy inputs such as solar pumping.
Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) is a recognized suite of well-informed approaches to land and water management, soil conservation and agronomic practice that sequester carbon and reduce GHG emissions. CSA practices help to retain soil structure, organic matter and moisture under drier conditions, and include agronomic techniques (including irrigation and drainage) to adjust or extend cropping calendars to adapt to seasonal and interannual climate shifts.
Anticipated water-related health impacts of climate change on human health are primarily food-, water- and vector-borne diseases, deaths and injury associated with extreme weather events such as coastal and inland flooding, as well as undernutrition as a result or food shortages caused by droughts and floods. Mental health impacts associated with illness, injury, economic losses and displacement may also be substantial, although difficult to quantify.
At the end of the Millennium Development Goals period (2000–2015), 91% of the global population used an improved drinking water source and 68% used improved sanitation facilities. Much remains to be done to reach the new, higher levels of safely managed water supply and sanitation services as defined under the SDGs for the 2.2 billion and 4.5 billion people respectively who lack this superior level of service.
Climate change is likely to slow or undermine progress on access to safely managed water and sanitation, and lead to ineffective use of resources if systems design and management are not climate-resilient. By extension, progress on the elimination and control of water- and sanitation-related disease will also be slowed or undermined by climate change.
Energy is in the spotlight of climate change initiatives as about two-thirds of the world’s anthropogenic GHGs come from energy production and use. There are a number of opportunities to mitigate GHGs and reduce water use at the same time. Reducing energy demand and increasing energy efficiency are starting points. One promising direction is the increased use of low-carbon renewable energy technology with little water requirements, such as solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind, the costs of which are becoming increasingly competitive with fossil fuel energy generation. While hydropower will continue playing a role in climate mitigation and adaptation of the energy sector, the overall sustainability of single projects needs to be assessed, taking account of potential water consumption through evaporation as well as GHG emissions from reservoirs, not to mention the potential ecological and socio-economic impacts.
Improved approaches to the treatment of water, and especially wastewater, offer a range of mitigation opportunities. Untreated wastewater is an important source of GHGs. With more than 80% of all wastewater (globally) released to the environment without treatment, treating its organic matter prior to its release can reduce GHG emissions. The reuse of untreated or partially treated wastewater can reduce the amount of energy associated with water extraction, advanced treatment and, in cases where the wastewater is reused at or near the release site, transportation. The biogas produced from wastewater treatment processes can be recovered and used to power the treatment plant itself, rendering it energy-neutral and further enhancing energy savings.