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Interview with UN-Water Chair: Climate Change and Water

December 2010



"Climate Change is all about Water."


Many people may consider expanding deserts as the main manifestation of a warming planet, and that's likely to occur. However, it is just one consequence of predicted shifts in the global water cycle -- changes that will affect the quality, timing and volume of precipitation and water availability everywhere.

Climate change will affect all societies and ecosystems most profoundly through the medium of water – the arrival of too much in some places, too little in others and at unexpected times. Sadly, most communities in developing countries are ill-prepared to adjust to the looming new reality. The need is growing by the day for disadvantaged countries to work on ways to cope with climate change impacts.

Changes to precipitation patterns have already been documented and are projected to amplify through global warming. Receding glaciers, melting permafrost and changes in precipitation from snow to rain would further affect seasonal water flows.

Meanwhile, rising sea levels will seriously affect coastal aquifers on which many cities and other users rely heavily. This phenomenon will also severely impact agricultural production in major delta regions -- the food bowl of many countries.

Climate change will also directly affect industrial, agricultural and household demand for water. For example, demand for water to irrigate crops may rise as transpiration increases with higher temperatures.

Finally, extreme weather events have become more frequent and intense in many regions, resulting in a substantial increase of water-related hazards. The impacts of recent major floods, such as this summer's deadly and costly ($9.5 billion in damages) catastrophe in Pakistan earlier this year, is an indication of what could lie ahead from increased climate variability. More intense droughts experienced in the past decade are also linked to changing climate and water cycle patterns.

In order to prepare the developing countries for impacts on their water resources, three strategies must be employed.

First: Build resilience of societies to unexpected climate patterns

While this certainly means investment in hardware (infrastructure, water reservoirs, water delivery and treatment systems) there must also be an equal emphasis on "software" (especially raising awareness of public and policy-makers alike).

The creation of community groups that would respond to climatic emergencies and care for those most vulnerable is one aspect, as successfully demonstrated in some countries including Cuba. Developing national economic policies that account for changes in water distribution is another.

Second: Foster better understanding of sectoral impacts of water-related climate impacts

How we manage water affects almost all aspects of the economy, particularly a) public health, food production and security; b) domestic water supply and sanitation; c) energy and industry; and d) environmental sustainability. An integrated set of policies for water management at every level of government is critical to the economic, social and environmental well-being of societies everywhere.

Third: Bring in additional resources and new investments to ensure that adaptation to climate impacts is undertaken effectively

In the dialogue during and around climate change negotiations in Copenhagen last year, United Nations member states recognized this reality and are responding favourably. The additional resources in question are not just financial; they also include training people to lead the national responses and deploying cost-effective technologies.

The political complexity and competing interests in the climate change debate have led to uncertain action on the mitigation of emissions and, in the process, assured future adverse impacts.

The focus on adaptation to climate's impact on our water resource must, therefore, become a center-stage priority. This should be reflected in national development policies and budget allocations, but also in the international discourse on climate change.

Last update:06 Feb 2014