Rivers of resilience: water must be at the heart of climate adaptation
Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs, Kingdom of The Netherlands & Stuart Orr, WWF Global Freshwater Lead
A mother queuing at a water-tanker in Chennai, where the taps have run dry. An Australian farmer surveying his dead cattle, killed by drought. Abandoned rice paddies in the Mekong Delta, made brackish and useless by encroaching sea-water. Historic floods across the US Midwest costing the economy billions and leaving farmers facing bankruptcy.
For a growing number of people around the world, this is what climate change looks like. It is not about concentrations of carbon atoms in the atmosphere, or even heatwaves or devastating hurricanes: instead, it is about too little or too much water, and the crippling impacts that follow.
As climate change rises up the public agenda, there is a growing recognition that we not only need to mitigate it by reducing emissions, but we also need to adapt to its consequences. However, too little of that adaptation effort — as slow, piecemeal and poorly funded as it has been thus far — has been directed towards the freshwater systems on which human society and nature rely.
The world has long been wilfully burying its head in the sand on water. Reacting in horror (and vast amounts of humanitarian aid) to extreme floods, droughts and other water-related climate crises but not taking the obvious step: start valuing water and focusing on fixing our freshwater systems — which we have wrecked — because they are the key to unlocking a sustainable, resilient and equitable future for all. Tackling water challenges is complicated. But we can do it. And we must: otherwise global efforts to adapt will fail.
There are signs that attitudes are changing and that a tipping point might be close. Earlier this month, the Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA) published its landmark Adapt Now report, dubbed a ‘global call for leadership on climate resilience’. It identified water as one of the key systems in which adaptation must be accelerated and it set out a Water Action Track to reduce risks “for billions of people facing high water stress and for those whose lives are impacted by floods and droughts.”
Few places are as vulnerable to the worsening impacts of the climate emergency as Asia’s great river deltas. Home to 10 megacities and hundreds of millions of the world’s most marginalised people, they are also some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet for freshwater and marine species. Yet climate change threatens to overwhelm them, undermining any hopes of sustainable development by exacerbating the damage that has been caused by decades of blinkered development decisions, which have undervalued water and neglected the health of the rivers that sustain them.
A new initiative, driven by WWF, the Dutch government and brewing giant AB InBev, and with support from World Economic Forum, aims to increase the ability of Asia’s deltas to withstand these multiple threats. The Resilient Asian Deltas initiative — which is part of the GCA’s water action track — is intended to help stop the deltas of the Indus, Ganges, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Pearl and Yangtze from flooding, sinking and shrinking.
Previous attempts to tackle threats to these deltas have focused on treating the symptoms with ‘band-aid’ actions (such as building ever more concrete flood-control infrastructure) rather than protecting the dynamic natural processes, particularly sediment flow in rivers, that sustain the deltas — and will help keep them above the rising seas. Our new Resilient Asian Deltas initiative will seek out — and build political will and financial support for — sustainable solutions to systemic threats in their coastal environments and also, critically, upstream.
For example, by properly factoring in the impacts on deltas from activities such as the construction of new hydropower dams and sand mining, which reduce the flow of the sediments that replenish deltas, policy makers can make better decisions, and ensure development works with, rather than against, nature.
Restoring delta resilience is among the most effective climate adaptation strategies for the region. It is also one of the best opportunities to bend the global biodiversity curve in terms of numbers of species at risk. Advancing the agenda will require swift political action at both the national and regional level, as well an improved understanding across sectors of the economic, social and environmental case for change and the commitments of public and private investors to put their money where the mouth of Asia’s great rivers are.
This new approach will build on the work of the Water as Leverage programme, led by the Dutch government and involving a variety of partners, including WWF. By recognising the inter-relationships between water, sustainability and urban planning, the project is helping cities in Asia to become more resilient in the face of climate change — and demonstrating that water is not only the primary way we will be impacted by climate change but also offers the best foundation for any effective and resilient response.
The GCA report highlights the global importance of healthy rivers, deltas and other freshwater systems in adapting to climate change. A recent WWF and AB InBev report, Climate Change and Water: Why valuing rivers is critical to adaptation, details the threats posed by climate change to water supply, food security and energy production. We all agree, better management of freshwater systems, particularly through the use of nature-based solutions, can ameliorate those threats.
But only if global warming is reined in. Scaling up adaptation is essential but it is no substitute for mitigation. The world still needs to focus on slashing greenhouse gas emissions. Building with nature addresses both — helping to reduce emissions and enhance the health of ecosystems and human environments at a fraction of the cost of concrete-based, business-as-usual approaches. And again healthy freshwater ecosystems have a vital role to play. Peatlands, in particular, are extraordinary carbon sinks; protecting and restoring them would make a significant contribution to global emissions reductions and to resilient livelihoods for millions of people.
We know our climate has already changed. And even if we do limit global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees, we will still need to adapt to the harsher realities of our altered world. And to do that effectively we have to prioritise water and freshwater ecosystems. Failing to do so will lead to human, ecological and economic catastrophe. Doing so will save lives, protect nature and underpin sustainable economic development. Water is our best asset, we better start valuing it now.