Throughout history, managing water resources is the common thread connecting social stability, human wealth, prosperity, economic growth and sustainable ecosystems. Water has been central to achieving good public health, food security and sustainable energy. Water infrastructure and its good management have been humanity’s major adaptive measures to increase options for decision makers in times of drought and floods and to help make our cities more resilient and to guarantee the quality of our environment.
Today the world faces a major ethical public policy dilemma. Our water and security debates are raising public anxiety about how changes in climate patterns will affect water availability and water related extreme events. At the same time little is being invested in what we know are effective adaptive means to cope with such projected events.
Humanity faces inherent uncertainty in dealing with climate change phenomena to which the hydrologic cycle is inextricably linked. Water resources are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and variability. Peoples’ concern about climate is not about climate per se, but the consequences of water related impacts such as floods, droughts or increased variability in rainfall. By and large, felt impacts of climate variability are manifested through water.
The impacts of Hurricane Katrina or the 2010 droughts and consequent poor harvests in Russia that affected international food prices demonstrate how we must be prepared for the fate of extreme water related disasters in both rich and poor parts of the planet. At the same time operations of large flood risk reduction infrastructures on the Mississippi and the Yangtze on the 2011 floods of record, as well as Delta works in the North Sea and others continue prevent enormous damages to life and property: some estimate returns of these investments to be reaching benefits to costs ratios of almost 7 to 1.
With floods demolishing homes, with projections of 60%+ of the earth population to be living in vulnerable coastal mega cities in 40 years, with droughts destroying crops while demands for food increases, with widespread depletion in the quality of water, with changing climate risks and uncertainty; the imperatives of water infrastructure to achieving sustainable economic growth and building resilient societies are stark.
Climate Change and Resilient Societies
The question we must ask ourselves is what the water sector can do to increase resilience and to reduce s vulnerability of our social systems. How can we adapt to the wide-ranging impacts of changing patterns of climate variability across sectors and across continents?
Adapting to climate variability means understanding the role that water plays in the global economy, socioeconomic development and wellbeing of people. Adapting means ensuring that measures are taken to make social sectors more resilient and robust.
The capacity to manage uncertainties of too much or too little water is central to the ability to grow and prosper. This requires specific infrastructure. Lack of infrastructure is much greater in developing countries. While in the developed world, where water infrastructure has been implemented, damages due to floods and droughts as a percentage of GDP has been pushed down to around 5% or lower; for developing countries it is routinely higher than 20%.
In the United States, the cumulative benefit of avoided losses from floods is as much as USD 700 billion. If water is stored and managed well, economic growth is possible; decision makers have greater options to deal with stress on natural systems and thus preserve social stability. Based on hundreds of years of experience and on today’s uncertain climate variability, water professionals are more and more considering that hydropower reservoirs and their multipurpose operations are increasingly important adaptation elements to cope with our climate variability and change.
A Pact for Water Security
Water security consists, primarily, of attaining basic human requirements for everyday life, ensuring safe drinking water, hygiene and health while maintaining the good functioning of ecosystems. Water security also means guaranteeing economic and social security using water to produce food, energy and the goods and services needed for development and rising living standards.
Changing patterns of climate are affecting water security. Due to uncertainties in precipitation patterns and consequent stream flows in rivers and creeks, we need adaptive water management, including management tools both on the supply and on the demand side. On the demand side, conservation measures must be implemented. On the supply side, the role of engineered storage systems must be increased for multiple uses of water such as for water supply, irrigation, inland navigation, hydropower and others.
These issues have been highlighted during recent World Water Council dialogues on water, climate change and adaptation by revealing opposing views between countries. Developed countries are more likely to think of environment and security in terms of global environmental changes as developing countries are more concerned by human security issues.
Water as the Key for Sustainable Growth
The World Water Council advocates for global recognition of water as a milestone in the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals and call for the inclusion of a stand-alone goal on water security in the Post-2015 Agenda.
Since 2010, we have witnessed major events acknowledging the importance of water. Among them it is the official recognition of the right to water and sanitation by the United Nations General Assembly and a dedicated chapter on water and sanitation in the Rio+20 Declaration. These events testify a growing awareness on the importance of water at the highest possible political level, an objective towards which the Council has strived since its creation in 1996.
The technical solutions already exist. However, economic incentives and innovative means for financing multipurpose water infrastructure along with effective cross-sectoral partnerships based on win-win outcomes are needed to achieve integrated, sustainable and resilient practices. These needs go beyond external AID. They call for financing mechanisms, which simultaneously build local capital markets, manage risks to capital investments, and create revenue streams while also delivering widely distributed public benefits.
G8 leaders will certainly consider the importance of investing in water infrastructure for adaptation to climate variability and change. By recognizing interdependencies and common goals from water security, they can create the conditions for the longterm well-being of cities, economies, societies, humanity and indeed the planet.
An enormous challenge lies ahead in inventing new financing mechanisms for investing in water infrastructure. Placing water investments into mainstream economic policies and endorsing a Water Security Pact will help assure water availability, manage its distribution, and thus guarantee security throughout the world in many other domains.