Taking a holistic approach could help resolve water woes

Taking a holistic approach could help resolve water woes

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Date: 24th January 2013
Author: CDKN Global
Type: Feature

Laos-based Paul Pavelic, Senior Researcher in Hydrogeology for the International Water Management Institute, reviews CDKN’s publication Managing Climate Extremes and Disasters in the Water Sector: Lessons from the IPCC SREX Report

The authors of Managing Climate Extremes and Disasters in the Water Sector: Lessons from the IPCC SREX Report have made a noteworthy contribution to enhancing the access to knowledge and insights contained within the voluminous IPCC SREX Report. It identifies and addresses the key climate-and weather-related questions of the day that humanity must urgently and collectively address. In particular, it provides a resource document with a series of strong take-away messages and arguments to support them, along with regional summaries of historic and anticipated climate trends and impacts.

It reinforces the fact that while climate change will affect communities globally, extreme heterogeneity exists among various countries in their preparedness for climate extremes and disaster events, and that the poorest members of a society are typically the most exposed and most vulnerable to the risks. Further, the solutions to climate-related problems are highly conditional on the cultural, socio-economic and institutional setting. So, for example, measures put in place to solve coastal flooding in the Netherlands are not directly applicable to similar problems in Bangladesh. It has become clear that technology and infrastructure, although critical, cannot effectively mitigate risk alone. These elements must be complemented by policies, institutions and actions that arise in a coordinated fashion from the local through to the national and regional scales. In essence, all sectors of the community must be involved.

It is unrealistic to expect a short review of this kind to touch upon the vast array of issues that are confronted in the nexus between complex climate and weather systems, the environment and human development. However, what is offered is an alternative perspective on a key issue that resonates with me. The Lessons report makes the point that, “a new balance needs to be struck between measures to reduce risk, transfer risk, and effectively prepare for and manage disaster impact in a changing climate.” Naturally this balance needs to tip towards forward planning for events and mitigating risks. The range of solutions and innovations put in place must not only be able to effectively anticipate threats and curb the impact of disasters, but also be considered as so-called ‘low regrets’ in any trade-off analysis.

As floods and droughts have captured most of the debate worldwide, through the polarizing lens of the media, I shall consider these in a little more detail. Few would challenge the potential merits of the suite of implementation strategies proposed in the Lessons report; early-warning systems, increasing the storage capacity of dams for floods, and boosting groundwater use and long-term forecasting for droughts are among them. Clearly they must be considered in a coordinated fashion, rather than in isolation, such that ‘multiple barriers’ are formed. This approach has long been used in the water-treatment industry to protect consumers of drinking water and is just applicable to a variety of risk-management issues, be they within the airline industry, food processing or disaster management.

What is not so apparent from the Lessons report is that water surpluses and deficits are highly inter-related problems, and that various trade-offs emerge among sectors and consumers that are significant and can drive the optimal ‘low-regret’ strategy. For example, solutions to flooding issues can, if chosen wisely, yield significant benefits for drought protection, agricultural production and the functioning of ecosystems. In the half-century or more since integrated water resources management (IWRM) has emerged, we have not fully reconciled how it can be applied to the fullest extent from the perspective of mitigating extreme events while maximizing water security and water productivity at the river basin level. In most, if not all river basins, the interconnectivity between upstream and downstream parts of basin, urban and rural water demand, surface and groundwater resources, and current and future sectorial uses, has not yet been fully resolved. One downside to this is that water resources are being overexploited and livelihoods are suffering.

Take, for example, the Chao Phraya basin in the economic heartland of Thailand. The downstream city of Bangkok is regularly subjected to flooding; the floods in 2011 claimed more than 800 lives and were estimated by the World Bank to have cost almost US$ 50billion. But Thailand also suffers badly from drought, which hits the northern and north-eastern parts of the country regularly. A US$ 9billion package has recently been allocated by the government to flood proof the lower basin through a range of short- and long-term measures, but this may not fully capture all the basin-wide benefits.

The irony is that, if the surplus water in flood years were to be distributed more uniformly upstream – where the vast and often depleted aquifers have sufficient storage capacity to store water from all events on record – then benefits would flow to the rural poor as well as the city. For example, benefit sharing between flood managers and farmers, by providing incentives to those farmers who allow parts of their land to percolate floodwaters and store the water below ground for times of drought, could yield millions of dollars worth of increased agricultural production and potentially save billions of dollars worth of assets from damage. In other words, surplus wet-season waters that currently flow to the sea could be used to lessen the damaging and costly impacts of floods and droughts, while alleviating poverty and maintaining vital coastal ecosystems. This concept has yet to be put into practice at scale anywhere in the world.

The principles of the SREX as echoed in the Lessons report are sound and based on the best available science. Much is known already and can be put into practice, but the scientific community should not rest in its efforts to come up with and verify innovative solutions that tackle problems holistically.

Read Managing Climate Extremes and Disasters in the Water Sector: Lessons from the IPCC SREX Report

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