Guest Article #38

Water, development and climate change

Water does not specifically appear in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change language on adaptation. There is however no doubt of the central and cross-cutting role water resource management plays in climate adaptation. In essence, water is central to development and climate change impacts on both water and development.

In the development context, water and its effective management is essential to the achievement of a number of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and poverty reduction generally. It is also a critical factor in promoting and sustaining economic development. Effective water resource management is therefore critical in promoting water security, human health, food security, energy and resilient natural systems.

Sub-Saharan Africa has long been plagued by climate variability with climate change already evidenced in increases in both the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as floods and droughts. Changes in the pattern of rainfall and temperature will directly also lead to changes in water demand, availability and quality. These will impact upon human security, food security as well as safe water supplies and sanitation.

Lack of infrastructure and weak water governance underpins the continents vulnerability. The underdevelopment of water infrastructure reduces the region's ability to effectively manage its hydrology, or more specifically, the management of the movement, distribution and quality of water in the region. Low infrastructural capacity also reduces the inherent resilience of the region's natural systems. Investments in infrastructure and water resources management are therefore required to build resilience and adaptive capacity. In addition, climate change is predicted to have many indirect water-related impacts, which include additional infrastructure investments required to protect human settlements and industrial activities, the salinisation of groundwater as a result of rising sea levels, the aggravation of water quality problems and health impacts caused by increased activity of water-related disease vectors in many sub-regions.

Over dependence on rain-fed agriculture increases the vulnerability of our economies and communities to a changing climate. This in turn means the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of our people are held hostage by nature. Increasing the water storage capacity for food production is therefore a key priority for sub-Saharan Africa.

The water, climate change and development nexus becomes particularly clear in an analysis of the impacts of climate change on the MDGs five years before 2015. The continent is way behind in meeting the MDGs, and climate change and variability threatens to undo the progress that has been made and roll back the gains in the fight against poverty. All MDGs are in turn affected by climate and it is expected that on the whole, climate change worsens the position of the MDGs. The knock-on effect on poverty is seen mostly through the impact of climate change on the region's income status, which is primarily supported by climate sensitive production sectors such as rain-fed agriculture and livestock.

The water sector has the responsibility to ensure that the links between water, development and climate change are not only understood, but that appropriate responses are identified, developed and financed. It is therefore important that adaptation funding must be made available for strengthening water resources management in order to respond to climate change impacts.

The water, energy and climate change nexus is also useful in understanding the cause and effect links between water, development and climate change. Whilst the key message from the body of international science is that energy is the focus for mitigation, and water is the focus for adaptation, water is needed for sustained energy production. In much of Africa, constant water supply is specifically needed for hydropower production and expansion. A perhaps less direct but no less important energy, water and climate change issue is evident in the region's biodiversity and broader environmental management: deforestation is disturbing the equilibrium of many of the region's natural systems, affecting natural resources as well as many of the region's livelihoods that are so dependent on available eco-system goods and services. Providing an alternative source of energy supply is one of the few options in effectively regaining control over often-rampant deforestation.

It has become clear that water is the medium through which many of the impacts of climate change will be felt – and that these impacts are particularly felt in even further compromised human security. Because of this, water resource management will have to be significantly strengthened to ensure that affected communities are able to adapt to such change. Specifically, this means that the region's water sector will need to play a proactive role in making tools available for appraising adaptation and mitigation options across multiple water-dependent sectors, such as energy, land use, nature conservation, health and agriculture and food security. This will mean the adoption of both water efficient practices and technologies that are already considered essential in Integrated Water Resource Management.

In conclusion, if the sector is to respond effectively to the water, development and the climate change challenge, it must promote natural systems resilience, increase infrastructural capacity, improve water governance and improve institutional adaptive capacity. Institutional arrangements between water managers, disaster managers and those communities that are on the receiving end of increased and more intense extreme events should be strengthened. This means that for us in the water sector, we must increasingly engage effectively with other sectors.