Bonn Climate Conference: Why Water Matters

Water, unsurprisingly, is at the heart of climate adaptation efforts – without access to clean, reliable water, effective climate action cannot be taken, and none of the UN Sustainable Development Goals can be met.

The Adaptation Action Coalition (AAC) is an international coalition of countries  to address the impacts of climate change, formed in early 2021, to build upon the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit  'Call for Action on Adaptation and Resilience'. One of the areas – or workstreams – the AAC focuses on is water.

The Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA) is a global network of experts that focuses on the emerging practice of climate resilience, especially with regard to water management. It is an implementing partner of the AAC and the technical lead organization for the AAC’s water workstream. UNFCCC spoke to Ingrid Timboe, AGWA’s Policy Director, about the importance of water when it comes to climate action and the challenges Africa faces in this regard.

What role does water play in climate change adaptation?

Water is an essential enabler of adaptation and resilience; put simply, communities, ecosystems, and economies cannot successfully adapt without safe, reliable, and accessible water resources. At the same time, the impacts of climate change are felt directly through the medium of water in the form of floods, drought, storms, sea level rise and melting glaciers. Thus, water is both a climate risk and a critical resource for countries that are looking to boost their adaptive capacity. But water is often invisible in the climate conversation. We talk about agriculture, forests, and energy without acknowledging the essential connections between water, food, ecosystems, and energy production. There are serious tradeoffs we must consider. If our adaptation actions are going to be successful over the medium to long term, we must transform the ways in which we manage the water needed to enable these projects.

What are the big issues when it comes to water in Africa?

Africa is a large, diverse continent that faces a complex and context-specific set of water governance and management concerns. To quote Egyptian Minister for Water Resources and Irrigation, His Excellency Dr. Mohamed Abdel Ati: "The African continent faces major challenges mainly due to lack of water management practices in the equator region and water scarcity in the northern part. In addition, lack of capacity and finance puts pressure in implementing projects. Climate change and rapid rates of population increase are major risks limiting the continent resilience to absorb shocks and increase poverty in the continent."

In addition, one of the broadest challenges that African governments face – and they are not unique in this situation – is increasing uncertainty about future water conditions which impacts their ability to effectively plan and allocate water resources. As climate change and other stressors such as pollution and land use change continue to impact the water cycle, many countries are facing new extremes on both ends of the spectrum: [more frequent] flash floods and longer, more intense droughts, often within the span of a few months or years. Building resilience in the face of uncertainty requires different ways of managing water as a whole system, not as a sector. At the moment, water management systems are not set up this way.

What work has the water workstream of the Adaptation Action Coalition been doing since it was launched?

The water workstream of the AAC was launched by COP26 President Alok Sharma during the 2021 Petersberg Climate Dialogue and we have been working on developing the Water Tracker Tool and piloting it in three countries: Costa Rica, Egypt, and Malawi. We have initial results from all three and are working to refine the Tool while onboarding about a dozen new Water Tracker countries in the first half of 2022. We are also working with those three pilot countries to share findings from the initial analysis of their national climate plans, and to provide recommendations for further enhancement in the next round of National Action Plans  and Nationally Determined Contributions. At COP27, under Egypt’s leadership, we are hoping to organize our first Water Tracker workshop where countries that have applied the Tracker can come together to share their knowledge and learn from one another.

What African initiatives have been successful so far?

One great initiative from Malawi is the Malawi Watershed Services Improvement Project  which takes a multipronged approached to watershed restoration. [It] is focused on supporting rural livelihoods by incentivizing sustainable land management and the development of targeted small-scale water infrastructure such as irrigation, water harvesting structures, and small multipurpose dams. Another example from Egypt is the Haya Karima initiative, which is a broader sustainable development programme including the expansion and improvement of sustainable water, sanitation, and hygiene services throughout Egypt.

On your website it says: “AGWA’s vision is for effective climate change adaptation and mitigation practices to be mainstreamed and enabled within water resources management decision-making processes, policies, and implementation.” – how far away is that vision right now? What needs to happen for it to be realized?

I think we are at a real turning point: for years we have been working within the UNFCCC to highlight water’s essential role in addressing climate change – on both the adaptation and mitigation fronts. And for years it felt like we were making only limited progress. However, as countries begin the task of implementing their national commitments, I think there is a growing understanding that water could be a major limiting factor if not addressed in a comprehensive manner. At COP26, we had multiple delegations coming to the Water Pavilion and telling us they know how important water is for achieving their adaptation and resilience targets, but that they need help in developing resilient climate policies and projects. That is what we are hoping to do with the Water Tracker.

The Malawi project mentioned above is another good example of integrated land and water management, that seeks to improve water security by taking the whole basin into account. That said, we still have a way to go; it is very difficult to change the ways we govern and manage water systems, but we are starting to make good progress. At the national level, one way to help improve water governance is to improve coordination of water management across ministries and administrative departments. Most water is used outside the “water sector” for agriculture and energy production, so if the agriculture ministry isn’t talking to energy or environment, you’re going to have some problems.

Are you optimistic about the future?

Absolutely I am optimistic. That is not to say that the challenges we face when it comes to climate change and water are not daunting. They are extremely serious and will demand that we make difficult trade-offs between important water users. But we can’t manage these trade-offs if we don’t first understand where, when, and how much water is needed throughout the system to protect lives, livelihoods, and ecosystems.

In many places, including where I live in the western United States which is grappling with a historic megadrought, we must fundamentally reassess how we manage water. That is not easy. But I remain optimistic because we know what we need to do and, in many cases, we have the tools to act. And we are acting! Mexico City is using climate risk assessment tools to transform its water system; Lima is utilizing natural infrastructure like grasslands and wetlands to reduce disaster risk and improve the resilience of its urban water systems; Zimbabwe and South Africa are using biosphere reserves to improve climate resilience and water security; China is building so-called sponge cities to better absorb stormwater and reduce flooding. These are only a few examples of adaptation innovation, and we are looking forward to sharing more of this work in Bonn through the GST technical dialogue roundtables and our side event.

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