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OOSKAnews Voices: Climate Is Water: Solidarité Between Practice and Policy in Paris

CORVALLIS, OR, United States

OOSKAnews Voices is a new series of guest “opinion columns” on water, written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. The columns provide a global platform for organizations and individuals to promulgate their views and messages.


In this piece, John H. Matthews, co-founder and secretariat coordinator for the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA), which is chaired by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and the World Bank, highlights the need to connect water management decisions and climate policy in the upcoming COP21 talks in Paris.

Matthews’ work integrates technical and policy knowledge for climate adaptation for practical implementation. John has worked globally on these issues since 2007 and has authored many publications on adaptive management for water infrastructure and ecosystems. He has a PhD in ecology from the University of Texas and is based in the United States.

The opinions expressed in this article represent the views of John Matthews, and are not endorsed by OOSKAnews Inc.

Paris has been much in the news since the November 13th attacks, but Paris has also gathered attention in the preparation for the annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference (November 30-December 11, 2015). Widely referred to as COP21 (the 21st conference of the signatory parties), the meeting is expected to have more than 40,000 attendees and 100 heads of state. Expectations for an agreement that can slow the rate of climate change are high.

I’ve attended several COPs since 2009. Given the large number of people in attendance relative to the small number of negotiators, having a meaningful impact on any particular issue is difficult. Although I feel uncomfortable describing myself as a policy person, I am a concerned scientist working in a sustainable development NGO, worried about practical and technical decision-makers who are not well represented in these events.

Over the past decade, I have borne witness both to the sensitivity of the water cycle to climate and to how often bad management decisions can ripple through economies and ecosystems for centuries. Last week in East Asia, two hydropower managers earnestly told me about their concerns about climate impacts on existing and planned projects. Translating these concerns into meaningful policy language represents an ongoing challenge.

But the decisions made in Paris -- at a global policy level -- matter for local water problems: an engineer wonders about designing a flood levy two meters higher, a biologist must decide which plants to use to restore a wetland, a farmer considers shifting from rain-fed to irrigated agriculture. Will the COP make their decisions easier, more lasting? Paris holds a powerful influence on water management decisions. At local levels, climate change looks like reservoirs, rain, and aquifers.

However, the connection of water to climate policy remains relatively new. In 2009, I heard a member of the 600-person Brazilian delegation say, “I am the only official representative from my country officially tracking the role of water in the negotiations.” He was in the vanguard of understanding the linkages between climate and water policy. That same year, Claudia Sadoff and Mike Muller wrote, “Water is the primary medium through which climate change will impact people, ecosystems and economies.”

Much of the effort for climate mitigation, for instance, promotes “clean” energy. The tried and true low-carbon technology is hydropower, with investment moving here quickly. A recent analysis suggested that Vietnam alone will have more than 200 new hydropower plants operating by 2017, allocating vast amounts of water for new energy consumption.

Water “spent” on clean energy is often consumed completely (think biofuels) or modified (in terms of water quality, storage) for other stakeholders. During times of crisis such as the current droughts in Ethiopia and California, tradeoffs among agriculture, cities, and fisheries, as well as energy, generate conflict, especially in basins spanning jurisdictional and national boundaries.

Moreover, the structures we are building and have already built are not easy or cheap to modify as water conditions change. Much like current projects in East Africa or South Asia, the United States' Hoover Dam began operations with no more than about 40 years’ worth of hydrological data.

Based on tree-ring data, we now know that those decades were among the wettest in that basin over the past 1,200 years. The system now appears to be steering back towards something like the millennium’s mean precipitation. A 30-meter “bathtub ring” around the reservoir reveals the gap between the climate the dam was designed for and the climate in which it now resides.

Regional authorities have recently invested more than $1 billion USD to ensure that water supply intakes will remain functional if water levels continue to drop, though concerns remain about hydropower intakes and long-term viability. Will climate mitigation investments in clean energy in other parts of the world follow the Hoover Dam’s trajectory, or a more sustainable path?

Climate adaptation policies from the COP have other risks. I recently reviewed investments by a UN adaptation funding body. More than 90 percent of these investments were water-related -- usually for agriculture, cities and rural communities, and ecosystem restoration. But a quick analysis suggests that very few of these projects use best practices for robust water management. They were water projects, but water knowledge was often painfully absent. How can these projects achieve lasting success?

Global commitments for clean energy, disaster relief, and adaptation aid are, for the most part, water commitments. The special problems of water -- not the water sector, but water as a fundamental, even elemental component of the landscape and of our economies -- are not widely appreciated at a global policy level.

In a major change, this year the water community has come together for the COP to share concerns and hopes for how global climate policy can reinforce (and be reinforced by) effective water management, in a campaign called ClimateIsWater.

Organizations as diverse as the World Water Council, SIWI, IUCN, the French Water Partnership, UNESCO-IHP, and many others (including my organization, AGWA) have joined forces to articulate a vision of a global climate agreement supported by sustainable water management, rather than crippled by water conflict.

Water binds sustainable development to a global climate agreement. Our future requires solidarity in Paris between practice and policy, expressed through climate and water.