OOSKAnews Voices: Rain in the Desert - Merging Climate and Water Policies at Morocco’s COP22


OOSKAnews Voices is a series of guest “opinion columns” 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 article , 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, describes the importance of next month's COP22 conference to water.

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.

<--break->I find the UN Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conferences or “COPs” exotic, intimidating, absorbing affairs. The Marrakesh COP beginning November 7 will be my fifth since 2009. As a scientist working actively with other technical personnel and adaptation practitioners, I often experience the COPs as disruptive — a swarm of half-remembered and new acronyms, pointed disputes over a few words in a policy statement, and much careful listening to individuals I sometimes resort to calling “those policy people.” A friend and colleague who has been swimming in these waters for more than two decades asked me a few months ago, Are you sure you want to go again this year? Although she and most of my other policy friends smile indulgently when I talk about COPs or try to explain UNFCCC processes and institutions, I wholeheartedly said yes again. I did so because the COPs are about more than processes.

The COPs are about issues, and those of us living out those issues need to be represented and heard even if we can’t remember all the acronyms. This year’s COP — perhaps more than most — is certainly about capturing those issues and translating them with the policy people into useful processes. Although the COPs can have tens of thousands of attendees, I’ve come to learn that masses of people do not translate into insight, and significant, even critical decisions often depend on just a handful of people in a room together. More than once, I have been the only water person in that room. To paraphrase DeGaulle, policy is too important to be left to the policymakers.

Why is Marrakesh so important for water? The UNFCCC is pivoting from more than two decades of focusing on greenhouse gases in a handful of high and middle income countries to addressing the implications of decades, centuries, and (for some variables) millennia of committed, unavoidable climate impacts. The Paris Agreement signed at last December’s COP defines clearly how individual countries will make commitments to slow the rate of climate change (climate mitigation) and adjust to climate impacts that have already occurred and that seem likely to occur in the future.

The Paris Agreement — the most significant climate framework since the founding of the UNFCCC — does not mention water at all, but the Paris Agreement may also be the most significant water agreement in human history.

How does a policy framework that lacks any mention of water affect water management? The answer shows the gap between the climate policy world and the water world: our primary approaches for addressing both greenhouse gases (clean energy, carbon sequestration) and climate impacts (cities, infrastructure, agriculture, ecosystems) are largely freshwater and coastal water management solutions. The Paris Agreement has initiated a process of reallocating water resources on a massive scale, for a period lasting at least many decades. And since no one is making any new water, this “policy water” is coming from other sources. We are entering an epic adjustment of economies and hydrologies. And in most cases, we are doing so without seeing the water between the words.

The water community spoke with striking, even surprising unanimity in 2016. With a core set of policy recommendations with groups such as the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), INBO, the French Water Partnership, Arup, AGWA, and the World Water Council working through the #ClimateIsWater advocacy group, we spoke clearly together about how the Paris Agreement could help (or hurt) its expression at national and local levels.

But the Paris Agreement is done — it’s effectively off the table. This year, the target of effort is on the children of the framework, called NDCs, or National Determined Contributions. Each signatory — rich or poor, large or small — submits an NDC every five years. For most countries, the NDC combines both mitigation and adaptation goals and sets targets for how that country will help achieve global priorities and/or what resources will be needed by that country in order to achieve those priorities.

No “NDC police” exist — commitments from individual countries vary, sometimes dramatically, in how they define effective action. National priorities are defined by nations. Some such as Egypt recognize that water management is critical to meeting both clean energy goals and living with ongoing impacts on agriculture and cities. Egypt is also notable in recognizing that, for the Nile, these levers of action exist in a transboundary, international context — mostly upstream from Egypt. The NDCs of other countries do not always show similar quality in their insights.

As a result, the water community is girding for what we simply call “implementation”: how can we help make the NDCs more water-centric — more explicitin their water commitments and connections? Can the instruments of climate finance promote efficacy and the resilient use of water knowledge in sectors, projects, and investments that do not necessarily look like “water projects”? Do these NDCs recognize that a river runs through both mitigation and adaptation, and that the priorities and investments within these NDCs must reflect choices and tradeoffs across sectors, borders, communities, and ecosystems?

As the next COP host, Morocco has taken a bold stand on these issues and has recognized the central role of water to most aspects of climate change. Last July, Morocco hosted a conference called Water Security for Climate Justice intended to frame how water can seep within the UNFCCC’s institutions and processes most effectively, particularly at the national level. Some 650 delegates attended, with an impressive showing from Africa; a “Livre Bleu” (a “blue” white paper) will be issued soon that captures these insights and voices. Following France’s lead, Morocco has also announced a “Water Action Day” scheduled for November 9 to articulate to the delegates how to blend water within finance, NDCs, and other related implementation issues.

COP22 may not go down in history as a water COP, but I hope we can make some progress towards showing that much water has been hidden in the desert, ready for all to see.