Water, Water, Everywhere?

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

One of my roles as ELI’s International Envoy is serving on the Steering Committee of the new Climate Crisis Commission established by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). For those of you unfamiliar with the IUCN, it is a fairly unique international NGO with an extensive interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral membership base that includes governments, other NGOs, practitioners, academics, and the like. Because of its constituency, it’s a logical contributor for international environmental issues in need of a whole-of-society response.

sea level rise

My role on the Climate Crisis Commission recently took me to UN Headquarters in New York City for the March 2023 UN Water Conference, the first UN-convened event focused on freshwater resources since 1947. As one might expect, the implications of climate change for freshwater resources and water management systems was prominently featured on the agenda. Because the water-climate interface was my focus at this gathering, I thought I would share my high level take aways from this vantage point. 

Linkage to the Fall 2023 Conference of Parties (COP 28) Under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): A recurring theme at the meeting was the need to move beyond the general references to water in Climate COP 27 (2022) to ensure that COP 28 explicitly focusses on water and produces, among other things, a meaningful guideline for freshwater resources as part of the broader roadmap for climate change, geared to UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 (“ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”). There seemed to be a strong consensus for this, the predicate being that 90% of climate impacts affect water resources in some way, while, to date, only a nominal amount of climate funding is specifically linked to water resource management. There was also a consensus that both resilience and mitigation need to be part of a water/climate roadmap (see second point below for more on this).

Water, climate change, and biodiversity loss as intersecting crises (aka the “triple crises”): As discussed at the meeting, the water crisis is increasingly seen as connected to two other global crises—climate change and the loss of biodiversity—with each crisis reinforcing the other. Changes in climate are influencing precipitation in ways that are shifting the distribution of water around the world. Global warming intensifies the water cycle, adding about 7% of moisture for each 1°C of temperature rise. And land use changes (predominantly deforestation, wetland depletion, land degradation, and infrastructure development) are now influencing rainfall patterns and how rain is apportioned between so-called “green water” (soil moisture and water vapor) and "blue water" (surface water and aquifers). Water, however, is not just a casualty but also a driver of climate change. Freshwater is foundational to carbon storage in nature, such that extreme water events can cause interruptions or losses in carbon uptake in nature. Droughts lead to fires and the massive loss of biomass, carbon release, and biodiversity loss that they produce. The destruction of wetlands is reducing the planet’s greatest carbon storage system, and loss of soil moisture reduces the capacity of forests and other terrestrial systems to sequester carbon. Additionally, water treatment and management systems can themselves be energy intensive and greenhouse gas emitting, such that mitigation efforts are needed in this sector as well. Finally, we need to make sure that procedural mechanisms, such as environmental impact assessments, which have played such a big role in protecting freshwater resources and wildlife habitat, do not unduly impede the rapid buildout of renewable energy capacity that is needed to meet climate goals. All of these considerations need to be in view in fashioning a water-climate roadmap.

Water as a “global common good”, and a shared problem: There was a good deal of discussion of the international nature of the freshwater crisis. The transboundary nature of many surface waters has of course long been understood, studied, and hammered through. Increasingly, however, focus is shifting to the cross-border reach of many aquifers—the earth’s primary storage system for freshwater—and to green water flows, including atmospheric water vapor, rain, and “atmospheric rivers,” which extend far beyond traditional watershed boundaries.

Water failure is climate failure: As the foregoing suggests, failure in either water policy or climate policy has grave implications for the other, and we are already in a difficult place on water policy. As discussed at the meeting, key 2030 targets under SDG 6 are in jeopardy. This includes Target 6.1 (“achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all Indicators”) and Target 6.2 (“achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all”). Climate change is a major aggravating factor in the equation, and climate impacts are going to intensify through warming, with serious implications for water access, quality, and infrastructure.

Special Envoy for Water: There was strong consensus that focus on water in other forums like the UNFCCC will be enhanced through the appointment of a UN Special Envoy for Water. The UN Secretary General is expected to move this forward in the near term, likely honoring the recommendation that the Special Envoy should come from the continent of Africa, a view that appeared to enjoy majority support.

What does it all mean? As is the case with many of these big convenings, the meeting, in my view, ran long on problem identification and short on solutions. The gravitation toward a process fix like the appointment of a Special Envoy for Water reflects the difficulty of developing significant, substantive commitments. Notwithstanding the focus on the international dimensions of water, there was clear understanding that progress on water depends largely on the actions of the national and subnational governments, particularly in the absence of enforceable international mechanisms (which seem to be beyond our ability to produce in these times). The problem, of course, is that inconsistency in the response and resolve of governments has made them unreliable actors in addressing the planetary problems that are before us. And a fragmented, inconsistent approach is a poor and inefficient way to go about solving problems of this scale. For this reason, while it’s important to continue to expect more from governments, we will also need the contributions of nongovernmental actors if we are save the world from the worst of these crises.

Additional Resources 

Summary of the event

UN 2023 Water Conference Official Side Event – Turning the Tide: A Call to Collective Action (the most important panel in my view; see also the underlying report of the Global Commission of Economics of Water at https://turningthetide.watercommission.org/)

Background concept paper for Interactive Dialogue 3 on Water for Climate Resilience and Environment 

International Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) (see in particular Summary for Policy Makers)

UN World Water Development Report 2023