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Water and Climate Leaders Op-ed | UN 2023 Water Conference

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Wake up to Water for Climate Action

Released by Water and Climate Leaders: H.E. Mr. Emomali Rahmon, Mr. Janos Ader, H.E. Mrs. Hilda Heine, Mr. Komi Sélom Klassou, Dr. Han Seung-soo, Mr. Hani Sewilam, Mr. Mark Harbers, Ms. Hannele Pokka, Mr. Gilbert Houngbo, Prof. Petteri Taalas, Mr. Carl-Hermann Gustav Schlettwein, Mr. Abdelkébir Zahoud, Mr. Matthias Berninger, Mrs. Lindsey Blodgett

For too long water has been a ‘blind spot’ in climate talks.

It is time to wake up to the reality that climate change is here and now. It is time to wake up to the reality that water is the very source of life, and that its management can also provide powerful solutions both for adapting to the impacts of climate change, achieving resilience, and reducing GHG emissions. It is time to wake up to water.

Strong calls by leaders, experts, and advocates at COP27 resulted in an unprecedented and  historical acknowledgment of water’s  role in climate adaptation and its co-benefits, while ensuring social and environmental safeguards.

However, more is needed to place water at the centre of climate resilience. To that end, the United Nations 2023 Water Conference is dedicating one of its five interactive dialogues to the theme “Water for Climate, Resilience and Ecosystems.” The international community cannot afford to lose this historic opportunity.

We need to wake up!

Wake up to water’s role in providing life, achieving food security, sustaining human health and development, contributing to economic growth, and rejuvenating ecosystems. Water is key to all food system activities – from production, processing, preparation, consumption, distribution and disposal.  Water quality and quantity can negatively affect the availability of safe drinking water and food.

Safely managed water and improved water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) practices at homes, schools, work and public spaces can positively contribute to human health and quality of life and make societies more resilient in adapting to climate change. Having access to clean running water and soap is essential for preventing water-related illnesses, diseases, and a global pandemic.

Wake up to water’s role in reducing emissions from water and sanitation services. Only about 20% of wastewater globally is properly treated. Untreated wastewater released into the environment generates an emissions footprint of roughly 3 times that  from the same wastewater treated in a traditional wastewater treatment plant.

With proper treatment of wastewater, pollutants can be removed and methane, a potent greenhouse gas can be captured and used as a source of energy. The same wastewater can be reused for irrigation, landscaping, and other purposes, and this can reduce the energy used for water transportation and treatment, resulting in lower emissions.

Water service providers can achieve net zero emissions by establishing an entity responsible for managing and treating wastewater, fine tuning wastewater treatment technologies and utilizing carbon-neutral inputs in their processes.

For water serviced emissions from the manufacture of pumps, other equipment, travel and customer uses of water, water service providers can set standards for purchases and strive to influence customer behaviour to use water wisely and reduce water loss.

Wake up to water’s role in reducing emissions from water resources such as wetlands and reservoirs and by sequestering carbon.  Well-defined actions taken to preserve and restore natural functioning of wetlands (e.g. wetting and drying cycles) and manage water levels and littoral vegetation of reservoirs can preserve their role as carbon sinks that absorb emissions naturally.

By using water more efficiently, farmers can also reduce the energy used for irrigation and emissions generated by that energy. Precision irrigation, which delivers water directly to the roots of crops, can reduce emissions by reducing water waste and optimize fertilizer use.

Wake up to water’s role in enabling clean energy production from sustainable hydropower, biofuels, carbon capture and storage (CCS), green hydrogen, solar and wind power. Water is key to the necessary transition to clean energy. Simultaneously, demand for water in the energy sector must be managed to avoid challenges and risks to water resources and decouple water use from economic growth.

Wake up to the need to protect, conserve and restore water and water-related ecosystems to achieve climate regulation, biodiversity protection, water security and to enhance and safeguard water supply and sanitation systems.

Water must be further integrated in climate change adaptation and mitigation plans if we are to succeed. More targeted science is needed to demonstrate the success that better management of water resources and water services can make to emission reductions. More empirical work is needed to recognize, measure, and express the opportunities that improved water management can present to climate adaptation, mitigation, and resilience.

The impacts felt by climate change through water have intensified and cost us heavily. Between 1970-2019, weather, climate and water hazards accounted for 50% of all disasters (including technological hazards), 45% of all reported deaths and 74% of all reported economic losses at a global level. Floods, droughts, landslides, glacier lake outbursts and storm surges heavily impact lives and infrastructure. In 2021, significant flood events with numerous casualties were reported, among others in China (Henan province), northern India, western Europe and impacted by tropical cyclones such as Mozambique, the Philippines and Indonesia. Flooding can drive electricity faults, sewage overflow, contaminate rivers, lakes and other water resources and increase the risk of water borne infections.

In a similar cascading chain, droughts trigger power shortages, dry up water levels in lakes and water reservoirs and increase air pollution. Since late 2020, the Greater Horn of Africa have experienced a repetitive sequence of drought shocks that has caused waterways to dry up and driving sharp increases in food, water and nutrition insecurity. In the last year, China recorded its highest temperature and one of its lowest levels of rainfall in 61 years across Sichuan, southwestern China triggering widespread power cuts impacting millions of homes and businesses. In an era of increasing climate change induced disasters, governments and humanitarian organizations must focus more on preparedness, prevention, and early warning systems to reduce risks and strengthen preparedness for multiple disaster scenarios.

As an element that has multiple uses, water can link activities together and in doing so, bring people together.

This week, a ‘once in a generation’ United Nations Water Conference will shift the world leaders’ focus to the critical role water management plays in solving the crises of today, be that water and food insecurity, energy crisis, pandemic, gender inequality, or climate change. Under the Co-Chairmanship of Egypt and Japan, the “Water for Climate, Resilience and Environment” interactive dialogue of the conference is projected to be a critical event to strengthen an integrated water and climate change agenda.

Later this year, the UN Climate Conference in Bonn in June and COP28 at United Arab Emirates will look for new ways to reduce emissions more quickly, to adapt to climate change and understand loss and damage from emissions caused by future generations. In all these fields, water is imperative. Governments and individuals need to wake up to water for its central role in both adaptation and mitigation. Businesses need to make water a priority in their sustainability strategies and recognize the potential of water in contributing to reduce their environmental impact. 

The Water Action Agenda, collecting commitments from governments, NGOs and businesses, will be a key outcome of this Conference. All governments and industries must come together to accelerate action and make concrete, ambitious commitments to the Water Action Agenda. 

Pressure your local, regional, and national governments to ‘wake up to water’. Familiarize yourself with the water management in your region and talk about the issues in your community. Demand local decision makers to manage water resources sustainably and to come up with solutions to climate change that consider water and its protection and preservation. Ask businesses to manage water more efficiently in their operations and value chains, and to prioritize water-smart solutions in their research and development.

Water can unlock major opportunities for climate resilience. But this opportunity can only be harnessed when all people actively and effectively manage water for climate action.

Climate change is a challenge for us to tackle right now. Think about the opportunities from managing water well and act accordingly to achieve a climate resilient and water secure world. Let’s all ACT on the value that water can bring to climate action. Water CAN pave that way.

Matthias Berninger, Senior Vice President, Public Affairs and Sustainability, Bayer

Matthias Berninger

Matthias Berninger (born 1971) is a former German politician and member of The Greens from 1993 until 2007.
From 2001 to 2005, Berninger served as Parliamentary State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection under minister Renate Künast in the second cabinet of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. After leaving the government, he was his parliamentary group’s spokesperson on economic policy from 2005 until 2007.
Since 2019, Berninger has been serving as head of public and government affairs at Bayer.