At Conference’s Third Interactive Dialogue, Speakers, Highlighting Water, Climate Change, Disaster Nexus, Urge Renewed Commitment to Managing Imperilled Resource
Highlighting the nexus between water, climate change and disaster, speakers in the third interactive dialogue of the 2023 Water Conference called for renewed commitment in managing that resource and ensuring water security.
Co-chaired by Hani Sewilam, Minister for Water Resources and Irrigation of Egypt, and Yoko Kamikawa, Special Envoy of the Prime Minister of Japan, the dialogue, on “Water for Climate, Resilience and Environment: Source to Sea, Biodiversity, Climate, Resilience and DRR [Disaster Risk Reduction]”, was moderated by David Cooper, Acting Executive Secretary of the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Mr. Sewilam, observing that the world is not on track to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6, expressed concern about securing supplies of fresh water for the growing needs of humanity. Climate change is a central external driver, affecting both water supply and demand which will affect billions of people and threaten water and food security and livelihoods worldwide. This requires a holistic response, with major changes in policy and management needed to ensure the best use of available resources. An integrated view of the biosphere is required to allow humanity to protect itself from extreme events in the future. After years of futile attempts by the water community, the Egyptian presidency of the twenty-seventh United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 27) initiated major actions that, for the first time, linked water with climate change. At this critical juncture, he invited all partners to share successful stories of managing water resources and climate commitments.
Ms. Kamikawa, noting the large difference in climate between the two chairing countries — “dry Egypt and wet Japan” — said that her country frequently suffers damages due to too much water. Despite such a water-rich environment, Japan is vulnerable to too little water in reality, she reported, adding that these common challenges call for a globally applicable and effective framework. Using the metaphor of a tree, she said that water action consists of two parts: a trunk and leaves. The trunk includes critical steps and on-site solutions, while the leaves are effective and innovative contributions to support each critical step. Outlining priority steps, she highlighted the importance of risk awareness, risk identification, designing of countermeasures, funding multi-stakeholder partnership and on-site implementation. The international community must focus on tools and resources that contribute to achieving these critical steps, she said, underlining the importance of scientific data and an open and integrated global platform for data collection and assessment.
A panel discussion was then held, featuring János Áder, former President of Hungary, member of the Water and Climate Leaders, and former member of the High-Level Panel on Water; Senzo Mchunu, Minister for Water and Sanitation of South Africa; and Mariam Almheiri, Minister for Climate Change and Environment of the United Arab Emirates.
Mr. Áder said that 80 per cent of the impacts of climate change are experienced through water, including droughts and flash floods. Addressing sanitation, he noted that building and maintaining water infrastructure is a challenge even for affluent countries and, therefore, even more so for less-affluent ones. Hungary organized water summits in 2013, 2016 and 2019 that concentrated on solutions and options for treated wastewater. This led to Ghana’s first-ever wastewater treatment plan, cleaning water for 5 per cent of its population. That change of approach addresses new technologies and funding issues, with experts calculating that to build further sewage treatment plants would require $50.00 of investment for every single citizen. That means, in light of the growing population of Africa, an investment of $5 billion to $6 billion annually over 15 to 20 years which, in turn, would provide sanitation for every person on the continent, resources for agriculture and ensure a safer environment, while also reducing migration.
Mr. Mchunu, acknowledging the poor governance of some of his country’s institutions that are responsible for managing its water and sanitation services, said that this has led to increasing malfunctions of wastewater treatment systems, environment degradation and water resource pollution. Ensuring that water services institutions are well governed and professionally managed is a game changer for meeting the Sustainable Development Goal of providing reliable and safe water and sanitation for all. South Africa’s growing economy and growing population mean that if it does not develop additional water resource infrastructure while simultaneously making more efficient use of water resources, there will be a gap of about 17 per cent between available water and demand for water by 2030. The Government is investing significantly in additional storage facilities and diversifying water resources, but it is not possible for the State alone to fund the development of water resource infrastructure. His country is partnering with the private sector to finance a large portion of these planned infrastructure investments, he said, also underscoring the need for behaviour changes. “Our people and our industries must change their behaviour and use water more sparingly,” he noted.
Ms. Almheiri reported that her country has invested heavily in water treatment and mandatory building regulations and is on track to reduce total water consumption by the food sector by more than 15 per cent despite doubling production by 2030. However, the challenges once seen as relevant only for desert countries or small island developing States are now being experienced by a growing number of countries, affecting billions of people; yet investment in the issue has never seen higher returns. She cited a variety of initiatives to restore all water-based systems, noting that vulnerable countries are seeking investments to reduce loss and damage caused by water scarcity, but only receive $2 per capita for climate finance. Early warning systems are a low-cost high-return investment to avert disaster and generate data, she affirmed, and there is high demand for innovation, including for desalination.
The interactive dialogue also included five discussants, including: Christophe Béchu, Minister for Ecological Transition and Territorial Cohesion of France; Mami Mizutori, Head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR); Bruno Oberle, Director-General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN); Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO); and Leticia Tituana, Youth from Future Rising Fellows.
Mr. Béchu noted that crises are multiplying, and the international community must respond by addressing natural disasters — as 9 out of 10 disasters involve water and represent 70 per cent of all natural disaster deaths. Early warning systems are key, with less than half of least developed countries covered by such systems, he said, echoing the call by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres for universal coverage within the next five years. Citing the Climate Risk and Early Warning Systems Initiative, he noted it may allow for projects in 75 vulnerable countries. To that end, France will double its funding to the Initiative to €8 million this year. The international community must use all tools to manage and protect resources to achieve lasting measures against disasters and for water security. He called for efforts at all levels, as water is a crucial cross-cutting issue, adding that it requires the appointment of a special envoy for water attached to the Secretary-General.
Ms. Mizutori said that water, too much or too little, is a connecting link between the majority of disasters around the world. Spotlighting the Economic Commission for Africa, she said that African countries are spending up to 9 per cent of their budget to respond to extreme weather events. For countries suffering from the impacts of climate-related disasters, this is a matter of national security, she pointed out, adding that it is vital to break down the silos between disaster, water, climate and environmental policies. Highlighting her Office’s commitments under the Water Action Decade, she said it is working to help countries understand the risk that surrounds them. The aim is to strengthen availability of and access to data on water-related disasters, including by developing a new generation of tracking systems. The Office is also helping countries enhance their infrastructure resilience, she said, noting that damage and disruptions to infrastructure systems are a major contributor to economic losses.
Mr. Oberle said the protection of fresh water supports biodiversity, which helps combat extreme events and disasters. Degrading nature on land or in water systems reduces the ability of nature to adapt at all levels. Assessing the condition of natural systems should be a fundamental part of water risk management. He spotlighted nature-based solutions as an important element of counter-measures, integrated with conventional approaches such as infrastructure investment. In that regard, they are generally cheaper than traditional approaches and provide biodiversity and socioeconomic benefits. He also called for the involvement of those who own land and waters, those who are directly affected by changes, and those who may have contributed to the degradation of such systems. Fortunately, he observed, there seems to be a new awakening about water, as demonstrated by the Montreal Biodiversity Framework, among other initiatives.
Mr. Taalas, noting his organization’s interest in integrating the water and climate agendas, emphasized the importance of various sectors, including energy and other resources, disaster risk reduction, mining, the digital economy, tourism and peace and security. He drew attention to the creation of the Global Hydrological Status and Outlook System Reporting joint venture to provide free data, as well as the organization’s efforts to report on the status of water resources worldwide. Some areas, such as the North American Arctic, have been experiencing more river flow, but globally, developments have been negative. He further noted a decrease over the past 20 years in groundwater resources in the Mediterranean, Asia and North America, with some positive developments in Africa. In addition, he recalled the extreme flooding in Pakistan, severe droughts over three years in the Horn of Africa and heatwaves in Europe, China and North America, which point to the need for global early warning systems and an investment of $3.1 billion over five years, as called for at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference.
Ms. Tituana, observing that many countries and communities in rural areas are cut off from research and innovation, underscored the power of science. Governments cannot work alone, she said, stressing the importance of holistic and comprehensive policies. Noting that the majority of the interventions in this dialogue were about investment and finance, she pointed out that “they do not mention the relevance of controlling the textile food and oil industries”. Small beach-cleaning and ocean-cleaning activities collect many tons of waste, while industries throw out much more without accountability. Appealing to Governments to implement legislation and combat corruption, she cautioned that new technology to address water pollution or early warning is often an entry point for industry to continue to pollute the oceans and natural resources. Emphasizing the stewardship of Indigenous and Aboriginal peoples, she said: “If we do not control the large industries, these summits are pointless.”
As the floor opened, speakers highlighted the impact of climate change on water cycles in their region and called on the international community to recommit to the current frameworks on water action.
The representative of Portugal, noting that his region has become susceptible to droughts, wildfires, coastal erosion and desertification, said healthy water ecosystems and sustainable water resource management are essential for climate resilience. Highlighting the central role of water and sanitation in public health and well-being, as well as economic activities, he said his country is launching a global coalition for better policies on water and sanitation. He also called for the appointment of a special envoy on water.
The representative of the Philippines said that her country is particularly vulnerable to weather and climate extremes, which have caused tropical cyclones and high levels of water stress. The country is striving for greater integration into global agreements, from the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, she said, adding that it is also putting in place nature-based policies, technological innovations, climate-smart agriculture and a just energy transition.
“Water and climate change have one sad thing in common”, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change said: the world is not on course to meet the goals set by the international community regarding them. Transformative climate action should be just and must not increase inequities, he said, adding that it should also not create new victims or conflicts.
Climate change does not recognize borders, Iraq’s delegate said, noting that the bad management of water resources and rising temperatures have led to grave problems in his country. His Government is working to adapt new agricultural methods and rehabilitate arable lands, he said.
Promoting democracy and protecting natural resources are among Brazil’s priorities, that country’s delegate said. With the change of Government last year, President [Luiz Inácio] Lula’s Administration is committed to zero deforestation as a priority, he said, spotlighting the role of the Amazon in the regional ecosystem.
The representative of the European Union, reaffirming commitment to transboundary cooperation, pointed out that the international community already has excellent frameworks in place for this, from the Sustainable Development Goals to the Biodiversity Convention. “If we were to implement them, we would make big strides towards water resilience,” she stressed.
Madagascar’s delegate said that his country, an island in the Indian Ocean, has coastal areas exposed to cyclones, while the southern region has a semi-arid climate and is subject to recurring droughts. Highlighting the various activities the Government is undertaking to fight climate change, he said its slogan is “Those who prepare can be sheltered from danger”.
In closing remarks, Mr. Sewilam warned that the global water scarcity challenge has been compounded by climate change, leading to multidimensional negative consequences on vital human needs and development. Decoupling water consumption and economic activity is, therefore, an indispensable prerequisite to building water sustainability and climate resilience. He called for mainstreaming integrated policy frameworks which combine water resources management with other holistic water-related approaches linking the ecosystems of the hydrological cycle with associated socioeconomic processes; mutually agreed, mutually beneficial no-harm policies for cooperative water adaptation; and a global water information system.
Ms. Kamikawa, acknowledging the tangible commitments and useful proposals made during the interactive dialogue, spotlighted many ideas, such as promoting environmental and economic accounting. Connecting climate change resilience and water action should be a global priority, she said, adding that “you cannot improve what you cannot measure”. Underlining the role of science and technology in water transformation, she expressed gratitude to all stakeholders for the commitments they made for alliance and action.
Also speaking today were ministers, senior officials and representatives of Niger, Bulgaria, Spain, Netherlands, United States, China, Slovenia, Chile, Ireland, Jamaica, Solomon Islands, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Slovakia, Greece, Fiji, Uganda, Mexico, Sweden, United Kingdom, Italy, Türkiye, Russian Federation and Malta. A representative of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) also spoke. Also heard from were speakers representing HELP and the Japan Water Forum.