By Dr. Mark Smith, Head of the Water Programme, IUCN, and Dr. Ger Bergkamp, Director General of the World Water Council.
Even as climate science at last brings political action, an unfortunate and unnecessary rift has arisen between those striving to prevent emissions above and those working to adapt to the consequences below.
Each side tends to regard the other as a rival for scarce attention, funds and time. Even Al Gore warned against “an arrogant faith in our ability to react” and reaffirms that “we really have to focus on prevention.” So perhaps politicians’ emphasis on mitigation for Copenhagen’s COP-15 is appropriate.
"Snow will still melt faster, tropical aridity belts will still spread wider. Billions must cope with changes underway."
But let’s assume industrialized nations get it exactly right; delegates not only agree to slash emissions but enforce that cap immediately. Due to the lag between action and reaction, the planet will still warm another degree due to accumulated carbon. Snow will still melt faster, tropical aridity belts will still spread wider. Billions must cope with changes underway.
So, should we prioritize mitigation or adaptation? That’s like asking whether stopping a car should prioritize hitting the brakes or taking the foot off the accelerator; success demands a coordinated effort.
Focus is essential, but elusive. Mitigation has frustrated so many for so long that climate adaptation may seem even harder to accomplish. Given the wild uncertainty and extreme consequences that range from melting polar ice to Amazonian drought to Australia’s wildfires to Hurricane Katrina, how can political leaders know where to begin?
Actually, despite their geographical scale and complexity, all those diverse impacts share one common denominator.
Due to increased atmospheric water vapor content, arid regions will expand while growing drier even as humid lands fall prone to floods. Water links the atmosphere’s physical climate system up there with our human ecosystem down here. Water stands at the center of debate as the medium for action. Climate adaptation thus translates, to a large extent, into water adaptation. Best of all, by securing water resources as our top priority we also secure the basis for food, energy, health and economic development, thereby ensuring a nation’s ability to thrive.
"By securing water resources as our top priority we also secure the basis for food, energy, health and economic development, thereby ensuring a nation’s ability to thrive."
There are two interdependent ways to secure water: increase supply and decrease demand. Supply-side best practices use existing water infrastructure to work with, rather than against, nature’s increasingly unpredictable forces. Effective water demand approaches harness economic incentives to reduce domestic, industrial and agricultural consumption and waste, reducing vulnerability while enhancing autonomous, resilient, ‘climate proof’ communities.
Resilience is never mandated from above; it rises from below. We must empower people who know what they need to do to cope with extreme change, where to efficiently allocate resources, and how to integrate their families, tribal leaders and representatives toward mutually beneficial outcomes.
Even so, marginalized people demand high-level help. Leaders and policies must connect across scales; link local with global efforts; meet needs as they arise; and respond to demands from related sectors. Water-based resilience cannot always be regulated, but it must be unlocked and coordinated.
Happily, one such affordable and high-level coordinating platform already exists.
The UN Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) helps local authorities in the developing world secure their own renewable natural resources (boosting local adaptation) while reducing emissions (for global mitigation). There is every indication that a similarly strategic and cost-effective investment in water would pay equal or superior dividends across the board. We need only adapt REDD to secure our watersheds. To that end, climate mitigation and adaptation advocates must set aside their unnecessary rivalry to determine who, how, where, when and how much to invest in water.
The details can and should emerge through robust debate, first in Istanbul at the Fifth World Water Forum, and later in Copenhagen. But several shared principles can guide progress in both cities:
Recognize people on the ground as the owners, actors and direct beneficiaries of water-based resilience. Those most burdened by climate change must have clearly defined rights and strong incentives to decide how they can most responsibly and accountably use their water to reduce exposure to emerging risks.
Learn, adapt and innovate along the way. Global mitigation and local water-based adaptation can be symbiotic, but require flexible imperfect decisions, informed by emerging science, that help coordinate adjustments to a dynamic and changing world.
Work across scales to connect. Emissions can be capped only by global centers of power, a centripetal force; water-based resilience is oriented outwards to local irrigation canals or transnational aquifer users, a centrifugal force. Coordinated decisions demand multilevel communication and multiple platforms for negotiation.
The time has come to seamlessly integrate the adaptation and mitigation agendas. To that end, a coordinated focus on water will bridge the old climate change divides, empower all people to reduce their vulnerability, and strengthen national resilience both now and during the tumultuous years ahead.