Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on Apr 14, 2022
The mitigation of climate change will be successful only if water risks are factored in while drafting ‘climate-smart’ strategies.
IPCC’s reminder: Not just climate-smart but also water-wise Water is the primary medium through which much of the impact of global warming and climate change will be felt. As the global temperature warms and a concomitant change in climate pattern is underway, much of the direct impact will be on the water cycle, thereby affecting human societies and natural ecosystems all across the planet. Be it the hydrological extremes of floods and droughts, reduced snow cover and recession of glaciers or an increase in sea level and storm surges, all of these stand to threaten the availability and accessibility of freshwater. Hence, the latest IPCC offering—the Sixth Assessment Report by the Working Group III, albeit on the mitigation of climate change, still emphasises this crucial interlinkage. Ideally, one should also refer to the previous report on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, released under the same assessment cycle, in conjunction with the latest IPCC report to get the complete picture of this crucial interface.

What does the latest IPCC report say?

The latest report on mitigation paints a solemn picture concerning global climate action. Total net Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from anthropogenic sources have continued to rise between 2010 and 2019, consistent with the overall trend of increase since pre-industrial times (1850). In fact, average annual GHG emissions in the 2010-2019 period were higher than any previous decade, albeit the rate of growth dipping from what it was in the previous decade. It also served as a reminder that limiting warming to around 1.5 °C would require a mammoth effort to ensure that GHG emissions peak before no further than 2025 while reducing subsequently by 42 percent within 2030, compared with the 2019 level.

Average annual GHG emissions in the 2010-2019 period were higher than any previous decade, albeit the rate of growth dipping from what it was in the previous decade.

The ceiling of 2025 holds true even if the goal of limiting temperature rise to 2°C has to be met. The only difference is that it can then reduce by a quarter within 2030, allowing greater flexibility for low-carbon transitions. The report also asserts that this reduction will have to be specifically matched by a reduction in methane which happens to be 25-34 times as potent as CO2 in trapping heat and has a 100-year global warming potential. Long story short, the call for urgent climate action for mitigation of global warming and climate change is perhaps louder than the global clamour of Russia’s action in Ukraine. But, unlike the traditional security threats, the slow onset effects, processes, or events around global warming and climate change hardly match the immediacy of a war cry.

The interface between water and climate change

When read in continuation with the previous report on the impact of climate change, adaptation, and vulnerability, the writing on the wall is hard to miss. Water insecurity is growing as rising global temperatures speed up the water cycle, leading to long-term changes. For instance, in simplistic terms, warmer air can hold more water, thereby intensifying the process of evaporation and leading to drier conditions with increased risks of droughts, wildfires and desertification. Higher humidity along with higher temperature may also endanger human lives. Subsequently, as all the extra warm and wet air cools, it will cause heavy precipitation. Due to changes in air temperature and circulation patterns, much of this extra precipitation may drop in areas that do not otherwise experience precipitation of such magnitude. This may lead to floods, soil erosion, crop failures and even locust infestations. Thus, climate change will act as an additional, overarching stressor on top of pre-existing water crises of varying nature and kinds. The latest report, from chapters 5 through 11, ties together the cross-sectoral aspects such as costs and potentials, demand-side aspects for various focus areas like energy transition, climate-smart, and resilient urban planning, cleaner modes of transport, and efficient building designs, etc. To achieve such transformations at a planetary scale, access to fresh water will be key since each of these entails a significant water footprint. Further, the impact of such water uses on freshwater ecosystems will have to be understood and a balance needs to be arrived at to negate any significant trade-offs. This has to be achieved even as water insecurity becomes a looming challenge globally as already explained. Thus, potential climate solutions may not work if governments and corporations fail to properly assess the water risks involved in implementing ‘climate-smart’ strategies. They may simply become socially unacceptable.

Due to changes in air temperature and circulation patterns, much of this extra precipitation may drop in areas that do not otherwise experience precipitation of such magnitude.

Some examples in the present times elucidate what can be expected. For instance, it has been a growing endeavour in much of the developing world to delink agriculture from the vagaries of weather and rainfall. More so, since food security has remained a priority. An expansion of borewell irrigation in large parts of the world allowed for the atomisation of water. It ensured that not just rain-fed areas could be converted into irrigated tracts but also allowed for an assured supply of water during critical periods of the crop life cycle. However, in doing so, it has also allowed for the unregulated extraction of groundwater and the overexploitation of aquifers, sometimes often competitively—a perfect show of the tragedy of commons! Various evidence exists that highlights that the shift from the virtuous culture of water harvesting and storage to that of unmitigated and reckless water abstraction, enabled through access to technology and energy, has been a slow disaster in the making. Clearly, food security cannot and should not be decoupled from water security, and this is a key learning for mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Noting the Synergies and Trade-offs

For reducing GHG emissions, the turn to alternate sources of energy like hydropower, bioenergy, and nuclear energy could also create potential conflicts as the availability of freshwater becomes scarce and uncertain. Similarly, the expansion of cities fuelled by the influx of people to urban areas also threatens to jeopardise water endowments of the periphery and the hinterland even as they race toward a ‘Day Zero’ situation. This, even as equitable distribution and access to water in cities with a large migrant population like Mumbai remain a challenge. Preserving the blue and green infrastructure in cities is also key to not just building climate-resilient cities but also important for climate mitigation as well. Wetlands and freshwater ecosystems are one of the most effective carbon sinks on the planet which also hold the potential to regulate microclimate.

Investors need to be aware of how water risk impacts business portfolios; be aware of the intersection between climate and such water risks and be ready to engage.

The latest IPCC report has underscored this in its admission that— “Accelerated and equitable climate action in mitigating and adapting to, climate change impacts is critical to sustainable development. Climate change actions can also result in some trade-offs. The trade-offs of individual options could be managed through policy design”. Thus, the synergies and trade-offs between climate action and the pursuit of attaining various SDG goals, particularly those that are related to availability and accessibility to freshwater like SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being), SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) and SDG 15 (Life on Land), will have to be understood. It has even attempted to spell out these synergies and trade-offs albeit with caution, admitting that they may vary depending on context and scale. A better, context-specific understanding of the linkage between mitigation, adaptation, and sustainable development with respect to freshwater is an imperative for not repeating the mistakes of the past. Understanding this linkage and being cognisant of the involved water risks also makes business sense. Any maladaptation or hasty mitigation decision may contribute to problem-shifting, thereby putting investments at risk. Thus, investors need to be aware of how water risk impacts business portfolios; be aware of the intersection between climate and such water risks and be ready to engage. This also calls for more nuanced thinking behind business decisions and greater innovation. Society, on its part as consumers of goods and services, should also begin considering not just the carbon footprint of what they consume but also the water footprint. Needless to say, greater awareness and responsible consumption will be key to achieving this. Further, considering the scarcity-value of water, reflecting both physical and economic water scarcity, can be an important approach for arriving at key water use-related decisions which will optimise the use of water. Moreover, an understanding of virtual water flows, particularly for trade in agricultural products, would be crucial for improving food security in water-scarce countries. Lastly, it has to be consciously and collectively ensured that in the sectoral competition for water, ecosystems do not lose out on receiving an adequate supply of fresh water. A water-wise society needs to turn to ecosystem-based adaptation and plug all loopholes such that climate mitigation does not lead to aggravated water crises. Maximising synergies and avoiding trade-offs between climate action and freshwater availability and access calls for more focused research, and to be matched by evidence-based policy actions. The IPCC report would serve as a key reminder to kickstart this process.
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Sayanangshu Modak

Sayanangshu Modak

Sayanangshu Modak was a Junior Fellow at ORFs Kolkata centre. He works on the broad themes of transboundary water governance hydro-diplomacy and flood-risk management.

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