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FEATURE: Facing up to rural water scarcity in a changing climate

CDKN’s Mathieu Lacoste took a trip to the Pance community in the mountainous countryside outside Cali, Colombia. Here, he saw some climate change adaptation issues first-hand, and learned how a new CDKN research project could make a difference. 

“What actions can be taken to address water scarcity in rural areas in a changing climate?”  I asked Luis Dario Sánchez of the CINARA Institute, Valle University, as he showed us around an eco-smart water treatment plant in Pance community on the rural outskirts of Cali, Colombia.

“Beyond doubt, our greatest challenge is to respond to climate change by using water more rationally and cutting waste”, he replied. Climate change hasn’t yet caused water shortages for local communities in the mountainous surroundings of Cali. The Farallones National Park provides a kind of buffer area: forming the upper part of the river basin, the mountain still provides communities with a good, regular flow of water.

In those rural areas upstream of Cali, the community faces other immediate challenges, such as the cleanliness of drinking water. Poorly-managed, informal mining activities led to high levels of water pollution in the past. The eco-smart water treatment plant to which Mr Sánchez was our guide responds to this need – plus, it’s easy to maintain: the multi-stage filtering process uses no chemicals and relies on anaerobic and gravity filtering techniques to clean the water. The plant is now managed by the community and has helped to empower the locals and give them a sense of common purpose.

Although the impacts of climate change are not yet felt in the immediate area of Pance community, the community is constantly monitoring the changes in water flows, to establish if and when water supply must be controlled more carefully, to sustain a good quality service.

A connected ecosystem, a connected solution

If you zoom out from the mountainous ravine where the community is located, to view the lower part of the river basin, taking in the plains of Cali, the water supply situation looks different. According to Mr Sanchez, the industrial and agriculture areas around Cali have been suffering too little rain and higher temperatures than average for the season. This situation has decreased the amount of water available for human consumption since the water demanded by large-scale agriculture (mainly palm and sugar cane) peaked in recent months, and water sources in the upper river basin did not regenerate quickly enough to keep pace. The expansion of the urban area of Cali to the south is also a concern since it is increasing the pressure on water. This could be a game changer in terms of water availability both for human consumption and agriculture in a changing climate.

For Luis Dario Sánchez and Jan Teun Visscher, Director of the new CDKN research project on water adaptation in rural areas in the context of climate change, the most viable measure is to encourage communities, industries and farmers to ‘rationalise’ water use by cutting waste and using water as efficiently as possible. While it won’t prevent the impacts of climate change, it will help all these sectors to adapt.

Technology transfer is also an option but would require the direct support and empowerment of residents and businesses to be able to adopt and use the technology effectively – otherwise, the technology may not have an impact. Either with or without technological change, education is needed to raise residents’ and businesses’ awareness – and change their behaviours so they treat water as a precious resource.

In a climate change context, the discussion with the two experts leaves us with a few lessons: 1) In rural areas, climate change may affect not only the supply of water but also the demand. Climate change will change water flows and increase  pressure on water resources, since higher temperature for a longer period of time may mean higher water demand to limit the impacts of droughts on crops;

2) To address climate change adaptation in the water sector requires basin-wide strategies: responses at a community or municipal level should take into account the broader picture, since there may be effects upstream or downstream;

3) Behavioural change is likely to drive the ‘wiser’, more efficient use of water than technology alone.  Technology may help achieve better efficiency, but is usually a limited response to water scarcity locally (especially in rural areas) and the adoption of technologies may be difficult for communities. People’s behavioural change is likely to be have deeper, long-term impacts. Empowering people through education is a key component of climate change adaptation in the water sector.

Adapting water management in a rural, post-conflict scenario: a new CDKN research project

CDKN has commissioned a cutting-edge research project on water, climate change and rural development in a post-conflict scenario in Colombia. The project will be led by CINARA, a renowned institute and MetaMeta (a Dutch consultancy).

The 12-month research project aims to develop a portfolio of practical water adaptation measures in rural and post-conflict areas exposed to water scarcity. The research will focus on analysing water vulnerability at the municipal level, identifying how water scarcity is being addressed in the rural context and how inspirational and effective water adaptation practices may be transferable to other regions of the country. The policy-oriented research will not only provide the government and local authorities with practical and scalable water solutions in a rural context, but also with a better understanding of the links among climate change, water management and rural development in a post-conflict scenario where resources like water may be the ground for new emerging conflicts and will be play a central role for achieving local rural development.


Image credit: Liliana Ramos

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