The true cost of water - why climate change action is so urgent

3 November 2022 | By: Newcastle University | 4 min read
Drought land

Ahead of COP27 our Professor of Earth Systems Engineering, Richard Dawson, reflects on a UN report assessing recent scientific developments related to climate change.

Looking at water security in particular, Prof Dawson discusses his work with the Water Security Hub and how we must adapt faster to keep up with the accelerating rate of climate change.

Extreme weather events, including floods and droughts, have become more likely. Drought-stricken East Africa, where 16.2 million people lack sufficient access to water, is just one grave example of the heavy burden climate extremes and catastrophic weather place upon humanity.

Specialising in floods, drought and climate risk management, Prof Dawson was one of the 270 scientists and researchers that co-authored The Sixth Assessment Report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which considered the impacts, adaptation, and vulnerabilities of climate change.

Released in March this year, the report provides a sobering assessment of how current global warming of 1.1°C is already impacting natural and human systems, and that our ability to respond will be increasingly limited with every additional increment of warming.

Risks will be magnified if warming is unchecked

Over the last century, climate extremes – heatwaves, droughts, wildfires – have increased in frequency and intensity, impacting people and ecosystems around the world.

The IPCC report that Prof Dawson co-authored, assesses, with high confidence, that climate change has already affected the physical aspects of water security, worsening existing water-related vulnerabilities caused by other socio-economic factors, like living in informal settlements.

While impacts will vary regionally, the report predicts that:

  • between 3-4 billion people are projected to be exposed to physical water scarcity at 2°C and 4°C global warming levels respectively
  • Direct damages from flooding are expected to increase by four to five times at 4°C, compared to at 1.5°C

Such a significant change to hydrology is likely to compromise the efficacy of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services and delay progress in improving water-related public health.

What is the Water Security Hub?

Prof Dawson is the Director of the Water Security and Sustainable Development Hub, a research team aimed at addressing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6; ‘to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.’

The Hub has an extensive programme of research, with a team of international researchers and partners studying water risks, flooding, drought, water quality, sanitation, and public health.

There are limits to adaptation

The report shows that at global warming levels beyond 1.5°C, the biophysical limits to adaptation may be reached due to:

  • limited water resources
  • small regions dependent on glaciers and snowmelt are especially vulnerable
  • human obstacles e.g. insufficient finance and poor planning, which could be addressed through more inclusive governance

Adaptation to manage the impacts and risks of climate change works. But, the effectiveness of reducing risks falls sharply beyond 2°C global warming, underscoring the need to achieve the Paris Agreement.

Adaptation cannot prevent all climate impacts, which are unequally distributed around the world. Mitigation of greenhouse gases and limiting global warming is therefore an essential part of risk management.

‘Maladaptation’ can compromise delivering SDG6

The IPCC Report highlights evidence of adaptation actions that compromise other important objectives.

These adaptation actions include reducing greenhouse gases and delivering SDGs, but sometimes these projects can make people and places more, rather than less, vulnerable to climate change. This is referred to as “maladaptation”.

For example, measures such as bio-energy, desalination, afforestation, carbon capture, and storage can have a high-water footprint: they use a lot of water. The water intensity of climate action must be achieved in an equitable and just manner, whilst also enhancing water security and supporting sustainable development.

The IPCC Report also highlights that many of the countries and social groups most at risk of climate change impacts don’t have the capacity to respond. For the first time, the importance of indigenous and local knowledge – alongside technical knowledge – was recognised as key to tackling climate change. For example, indigenous communities have shown they can understand weather patterns and predict imminent flooding after studying trees and clouds, and the behaviours of certain animal species.

Moreover, cooperation and coordination amongst all stakeholders, including women and marginalised groups, is required for effective climate resilient development.

The Hub’s Collaboratories (Collaborative Laboratories) are doing just this – providing a space for all voices to be heard, and enabling creative solutions to water security to emerge that are appropriate to the local context.

Cities are a challenge – and an opportunity

Over half the world now lives in urban areas.

The IPCC Report states that more than one billion people in low-lying settlements are at risk of flooding and sea-level rise, while 350 million urban residents live with the threat of water scarcity.

Climate change is driving other impacts such as extreme temperatures and worsening other environmental problems in cities, such as air pollution.

Yet because of their concentration of people and activity, urban areas are also sites of opportunity.

The IPCC report maps a wide range of options for urban adaptation, ranging from:

  • flood defence and water infrastructure,
  • nature-based solutions and spatial planning,
  • social policy measures such as social safety nets, insurance, and other support.

The Hub’s work on water-sensitive planning is developing new approaches to design cities that are more water secure.

The launch of a new national Centre for Water Studies at SPA New Delhi – a first in India – is enhancing the capacity of practitioners working in water-related organisations, through the provision of training that integrates water security and sustainable urban development.

The window of opportunity is closing, rapidly

Perhaps the most important underlying insight from the IPCC Report is the need to accelerate action.

Delivering climate resilient development is already a challenge; impacts will continue to increase if global warming is not tackled. Each increment of global temperature rise, however small, increases impacts.

Without current adaptation efforts, the report shows that the impacts today would have been substantially worse, but - crucially - we are not adapting fast enough to keep pace with accelerating climate change. Adaptation has typically been small-scale and sector-specific, rather than the sort of systemic changes the Hub is exploring. This might, for example, involve redesigning a city’s social, economic, environmental and physical systems with the water cycle in mind. This helps reduce flood risk, make better use of water resources, while contributing to the amenity and ecology of the city by bringing water management and green infrastructure together.

The effectiveness of some adaptation actions are reduced beyond a climate increase of 1.5°C, and some regions and systems may suffer irreversible changes beyond this. This underscores the urgency for climate action, and the need to couple adaptation measures with greenhouse gas emission reductions to enable climate resilient development.

The IPCC Report shows that systems transformations are required involving:

  • adequate financing
  • integration of grey and green infrastructure
  • inclusive governance
  • transparency in decision making
  • the participation of a wide range of people and groups

It is reassuring that the Hub’s programme is making such a positive contribution to support climate action. However, the IPCC’s report reminds us that the clock is ticking, and that both research and action must be accelerated.

As we look to COP27 this month, it’s crucial as leaders must take decisions on issues that were unresolved at COP26, it must update the ambition of emissions reduction plans to meet the 1.5°C goal, and commit to providing support for the most vulnerable communities to prepare for the impacts of climate change.

Listen to Prof Dawson's podcast about climate change and the future of flooding

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