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Lucy Lawrenson, IWMI Communications and Climate Change Intern

This November, Glasgow will host the 26th United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26). The conference will bring together world leaders to discuss humanity’s shared future in the face of climate change, as well as the future of our planet. Although each country faces its own unique climate risks, we all share one reality: climate change is mostly felt through water. From flashfloods to melting glaciers, we know that our world is changing. This has serious consequences for water availability, human security, and biodiversity.

Water underpins all human activity, which is why water security is vital for reducing poverty and hunger. But water security is also critical to turning the tide on climate change. That’s why IWMI’s research builds climate resilience by providing water science solutions that work for local communities around the world. Below are three ways IWMI’s pioneering research is helping to restore our planet.

Drought preparedness technologies

Climate change is making droughts more severe, unpredictable and dangerous. This is the case in Afghanistan, where in 2018 reduced snowfall led to the worse drought in a decade. This drought caused approximately 13 million people to become food insecure. Similarly, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), drought has led to decreases in municipal and household water availability, causing the region to over-rely on finite groundwater resources.

In both Afghanistan and MENA, IWMI has worked with governments and policymakers to achieve better drought preparedness through technical solutions, including map-based monitoring and rainfall monitoring systems. These technical solutions enable governments to not only measure drought impacts, but also predict rainfall patterns so that drought events cause less disruption in the future.

Photo: Pierre Restoul / IWMI
Photo: Pierre Restoul / IWMI

Understanding environmental flows

River flows support aquatic wildlife, yet historically human intervention, such as the construction of dams and diversion of water for irrigation, has disrupted these flows. While man-made infrastructure such as dams and drainage systems often benefit human societies, they alter the naturally occurring regime of river flows (called environmental flows or e-flows). Over time, this can damage the health of valuable ecosystems and cause long-term problems for all those who rely on waterways.

As our understanding of climate change evolves, so do our water management solutions. This is the case with e-flow assessments, a management tool that quantifies the amount of water that should be left in a river to support aquatic life and important ecosystem functions, many of which benefit people. Calculating e-flows to understand natural flow regimes promotes more balanced water resource development by defining how much water should be left to protect river health and ensure sustainable development in the long-term. In Nepal, IWMI and partners have convened workshops to facilitate understanding of e-flows and how they can contribute to a sustainable future.

Managing wetlands for climate resilience

Wetlands are critical for mitigation and adaption to climate change. Wetlands capture and store carbon but many also release methane. Some wetlands can, in particular circumstances, protect against storm surges and flooding while in other circumstances they contribute to runoff and flood flows. Many wetlands also contain immense biodiversity. Despite the benefits they bring, unregulated human activity often threatens their existence. This is the case in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where extensive land reclamation, waste disposal and pollution have resulted in 60% of the city’s wetlands being lost since 1980. If this degradation continues at its current rate, it could result in significant wildlife loss as well as increased flood risk for many people.

It is vital that we recognise the unique value of wetlands for wildlife and people and gain better understanding of how they function and the benefits that they provide. That’s why in 2020 IWMI and partners launched a three year wetland management project in Colombo. This project aims to align local wetland management practices with government policy to make sure wetlands are adequately nurtured and protected. This will not only safeguard the wetlands’ biodiversity, but also help defend local residents against increasing climate change threats. 

Photo: Samurdhi Ranasinghe / IWMI
Photo: Samurdhi Ranasinghe / IWMI

Restoring our planet

Many of the threats the world faces involve water, but so do the climate solutions we need to restore our planet. IWMI understands that human development and environmental protection go hand in hand, that’s why our research contributes to both. The fight against climate change is challenging, but water systems science empowers decision-makers to create evidence-based, greener, equitable solutions for everyone. In the coming years, water will be critical to the restoration of our planet.

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