By Rachael McDonnell, Strategic Program Director – Water, Climate Change and Resilience

Farmer in Gujarat looks on as irrigation pumps and pipes pull water from the canal for farms. (Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI)
Farmer in Gujarat looks on as irrigation pumps and pipes pull water from the canal for farms. (Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI)

This year’s World Water Day focuses on water and climate change – and how the two are inextricably linked. Throughout this year IWMI will, through its communications activities, focus on that link and the importance of how best to manage increasingly unpredictable water resources, particularly in the countries where we work. We will bring ideas and discussions on a range of solutions and tools – technical, policy, financial, knowledge – that can support countries adapt to the challenges of changing water availability and quality.

It is largely through water that most people will ‘experience’ climate change: through unpredictable rainfall, droughts and floods, and the disruption this will bring to our food systems, drinking water supplies and our connectivity.

So, it is all the more surprising to note that there is a lack of attention to water in the global discourse on climate change.

As many have noted, there is an irony in that water is both ‘everything and nothing’ and ‘everywhere and nowhere’.

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change all but ignores water. At the UN’s Climate Action Summit in New York last September, we saw a big push to transform food production systems, to protect oceans and to stem biodiversity loss – but freshwater was little mentioned.  The Global Commission on Adaptation launched at that meeting and an ambitious new initiative to combat climate change, included a chapter focussed on water only after fierce lobbying.

It is imperative that we balance all of society’s water needs at the same time, ensuring that the poorest people do not get left behind. It is, after all, the most vulnerable and the most marginalized that will suffer the worst effects of water shortages and water-related natural disasters, such as floods and drought. With most of sub-Saharan African agriculture being rain-fed (meaning non-irrigated), the risks are clear, especially when you understand that the majority of that food production is by smallholder farmers. IWMI’s development of solutions always have social inclusiveness at their heart.

Water is not just a central part of the problem – it is also a central focus for adaptive solutions. Human security from water-related disasters, food security, and sustainable livelihoods and ecosystems will all rest to some degree on our ability to manage water in the context of climate change.

So, as we head towards COP 26, scheduled to be held in Glasgow in November this year, it is critical to push for explicit discussion on how we manage our water resources in the global climate discourse. It is the only way that funding can be freed up to increase an understanding of how to effectively manage water resources and adapt to a changing climate.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may not be achieved without equitable access to water ‘services’. And these water ‘services’ need to be based on evidence and on an understanding of how to optimally use water resources, including mapping of what is available and how best to balance the needs of different sectors. And that’s where IWMI comes in.

We need to embrace circular production systems and use and re-use water much more efficiently. IWMI is working on that. We need to think about innovative approaches to water storage; solar irrigation; and hydrological modelling. We are working in these areas as well. Also, we should not forget the importance of natural solutions or what is known as ecosystem services. Besides being natural carbon sinks, wetlands, for example, also provide water purification and flood protection, not to mention their value for fisheries and recreation. And, of course, IWMI based in Colombo, is one of the world’s first cities to gain Wetland City Accreditation from the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, is working on this too.

IWMI’s research addresses ways to maximize water productivity, which is critical when water scarcity is expected to grow as populations increase and weather patterns become more unpredictable and extreme. This means developing more accurate rainfall predictions to support drought/flood warning systems; promoting ‘climate-smart’ agricultural technologies; increasing water storage, and circular resource and waste systems and water resources modelling, monitoring and scenario planning so we know who and where is using how much water. It also means addressing how watersheds, wetlands and mangroves can provide nature-based solutions to moderate climate extremes and increase resilience to climate change.

If we foster a better understanding of the need to integrate water resources management into climate discourse, more funding is likely to be made available. Governments and agencies will be better equipped to enhance collaboration to implement national policies and plans, and facilitate opportunities for local communities to fund, implement and scale their solutions.

Financial investment in addressing water and climate-related issues is beneficial to all, helping reduce the long-term costs of disaster-related damage, and supporting livelihoods by increasing employment and climate resilience.

Over the course of 2020, we will be charting a few of the methods used by IWMI to address some of the major challenges around water availability in the countries that we work in. We will be profiling some of the important work that we are doing, some of the successes and perhaps some of the failures, and some of the amazing scientists and researchers that are engaged and committed to achieving IWMI’s mission – to provide water solutions for sustainable, climate-resilient development… and leave no one behind.