Water Resources and Climate Change: Uncertainties and Crosscutting Challenges of the 21st Century

3rd July 2015
Ramy Hanna reflects on the importance of  integrating water resources issues in the climate change debate. This blog is part of a series of reflections in response to the upcoming  'Our Common Future Under Climate Change' conference in Paris.

Timothy Mwaura | CCAFS - small-blogClimate change adds to the existing drivers of water stress and challenges our understanding of water security. Existing water related challenges include: feeding a growing population, rapid urbanization, ensuring household access to safe water and adequate sanitation, ensuring adequate water for agriculture and industry, controlling pollution and managing waste water. Understanding and managing the effects of a changing climate adds to these pressures, which is aided by scientific evidence, which provides an enlightened insight about the status and extent of climate change impacts on ecosystems, hydrological cycle and human development.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports (2013; 2014) provide scientific evidence about the implications of climate variations and temperature changes on availability and distribution of rainfall, snowmelt, river flows, groundwater, and the deterioration of water quality. Complex science indicates that the dominant mechanisms to which recent climate change has been attributed are anthropogenic (i.e. resulting from human activities). These are often attributed to increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, deforestation and land use changes, and aerosols.

It is hard to understand and address climate change uncertainties and water resources related challenges from one perspective. For instance, in terms of water resources and climate change adaptation, a number of perspectives need to be taken into consideration by addressing three principal dimensions;
  • hotspots: including mountains, small islands, arid regions, deltas and coastal cities;
  • sub-sectoral perspectives; including the environment, food, urban poverty, water supply and sanitation, business, industry, and energy;
  • enabling mechanisms: including planning, governance, finance, engineering, strategic environmental assessment and integrated water resources management.
The UN World Water Report 2015 further indicates that current institutional aspects of water resources management often form bottlenecks for effective climate adaptation. For instance, inadequately described or enforced water rights may hinder improved access to water for poor and other vulnerable communities in many developing regions. Also, despite the increasing adoption of integrated water resources management (IWRM) concepts, political levels of decision-making still do not think about water resources in a holistic and multi-sectoral way. This is particularly the case for trans-boundary river basins and groundwater aquifers (UNESCO, 2015) where natural and national boundaries become the source of discussion. To meet these challenges it is important that countries develop policies and effective institutions and implement actions that take into consideration uncertainties and dynamic challenges related to climate change and water resources.

Water Resources and Climate Change: A multi-disciplinary approach

Putting the different pieces of the puzzle together requires collaboration and integration of different disciplines and expertise. Scientists, policymakers and practitioners are realizing the importance of collaboration and interconnectedness of their work. The complex relations between climate change, ecosystem response, water quality, water consumption patterns and policy actions are not always fully understood, and models that do take account of several of these aspects cannot be easily coupled (UNESCO, 2015). As such, the global scientific community cannot afford for individual disciplines to work in isolation or in silos. This is especially true when addressing the implications of climate change on water security.

ELDIS Key Issues Guide on Climate Change and Water Resources

The Eldis Key Issues Guide on water resources and climate change (also published by UN Water) provides an introductory snapshot of three key issues relevant to the state of uncertainties around climate change and water resources:

  1. Complex Science
  2. Development Impacts
  3. Water-Energy-Food Security
The guide also provides a variety of open access resources addressing the wider challenge of interpreting and using climate data; appropriate development responses through different adaptation and mitigation strategies; and the different trade-offs that emerge due to the interdependencies between water, energy and food in order to plan the development of water resources more effectively.

In the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), addressing the uncertainty of climate change implications on water resources is of utmost importance given that ‘water is at the core of sustainable development’. The upcoming 'Our Common Future Under Climate Change' conference in Paris (7-10 July 2015) is seen as an opportunity to take stock of existing knowledge, and explore innovative solutions as part of the preparing for post-2015 climate governance structure. With a number of side events looking at water resources through different lens (water and trade, water and energy, water and food, etc), it is clear that water resources are considered a key issue. Now we have to see what emerges from these discussions.
Image: Learning from adaptation experiences of communities, Timothy Mwaura, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0