ALICANTE, Spain — As World Water Week pivoted to an “at home” virtual event last week, conversations around climate resilience took center stage.
The week-long global gathering — typically hosted each year in Stockholm, Sweden, by the Stockholm International Water Institute — aims to “transform global water challenges.” In its 29th year, the event focused on climate change as its key theme.
While issues of climate finance, the convergence of sanitation and climate crises, and water politics for climate impact were also session subjects, climate resilience seemed to get the most attention, with almost 20 sessions out of 120 in this week’s agenda focusing on the topic.
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“We’ve been really excited to try to connect these dots instead of having a silo in the development community around climate and resiliency and then a different silo around water and sanitation,” said Lindsay Stradley, co-founder of Sanergy — a sanitation-focused social enterprise.
“If you optimize fully on one or the other of those two you’re going to inadvertently work across purposes with the other,” she said, adding that it’s important to see those conversations come together.
The effects of climate change have meant many development programs have had to adapt accordingly and water, sanitation, and hygiene projects are no different, especially given the increasing regularity of floods, droughts, and storms that may affect access to clean water and sanitation services.
“WASH has to be a key component for any community you want to define as being resilient,” said Jonathan Farr, senior policy analyst at WaterAid, adding that people feel the impact of climate change through their water systems. “If you think about what climate change actually means in terms of impact, it means increased rainfall usually preceded by a very long dry season and things like sea levels rises, floods, and storms surges caused by hurricanes and typhoons and so forth,” Farr explained.
Places such as Maputo, Mozambique, and Cape Town, South Africa, have already experienced water shortages, while small island developing states such as the Maldives and Fiji face the risk of being submerged by rising sea levels.
More extreme impacts of climate change on water security are being seen than originally anticipated, said Nathanial Matthews, director of programs at the Global Resilience Partnership. “That’s got a lot of people worried so it’s an area that needs to be addressed urgently and that’s why it’s a really important theme for this week.”
As the world becomes increasingly uncertain — as a result of COVID-19 and climate change — Matthews said many WASH systems designed previously in a more stable period may no longer be the right fit. Superficial interventions may not be able to withstand increasingly severe weather events, highlighting the need for more substantial, sustainable, and resilient interventions such as boreholes, early warning systems, and solar-powered water pumps.
Yet the barrier to such adaptation is access to financing, Farr said. Out of the $579 billion global spend on climate change in 2017 and 2018, only 5% was spent on adaptation measures.
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Earlier this year, WaterAid called for a tenfold increase in climate finance for improved access to water after a report revealed that countries with the lowest levels of water access receive as little as 17 cents per person per year for such needs.
Eunice Chimfwembe, environmental and social safeguards specialist at Lusaka Water Supply and Sanitation Company in Zambia, said during a panel discussion that the issue is competing needs. “So the finance might not be there to implement some measures identified. That’s a real challenge.”
Meanwhile donors want to know what spending more money on adaptation actually means, said Farr. “It’s about having answers to those difficult questions … By talking about this at things like World Water Week, it’s a great opportunity to realize wherever you’re from you’re often talking about the same problems,” he said, citing a lack of data on climate threats and lack of capacity to implement solutions on the ground. “
For Belynda Petrie, CEO and co-founder of OneWorld Sustainable Investments, disruptive innovation will also be critical in terms of building resistance while GRP’s Matthews cited the need for inclusive decision-making and adaptive learning.
“That’s the need to be constantly adapting and looking at the changes and pressures that are occurring within climate change and how they’re affecting our systems in the ground,” he said. This could involve looking at large-scale weather systems, teleconnections across water resources, and having feedback loops on what’s being learned by implementers.