Two for the price of one

The two ‘competing’ climate objectives of mitigation and adaptation can be reached simultaneously, and focusing on water resources will help. Mark Smith explains.


 There has been a divide between those striving to reduce carbon emissions and those working to adapt to the impacts of climate change—each camp sees the other as a rival for funds and attention. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Why do we need to argue about whether to prioritize mitigation or adaptation when we can do both at the same time and at a lower cost than many believe? The answer lies in that most precious of commodities—water.

Given the level of uncertainty and confusion that exists in the climate arena, how can the environmental community best help governments plan their response to climate change? We can show them that the climaterelated events they all fear—from hurricanes to floods, drought to sea level rise—all have water in common. Water links the climate system with our human ecosystem and should be central to the debate over how to most effectively tackle the climate crisis.

Because the climate impacts on water are so widespread, much climate change adaptation translates into water adaptation. By 2025 almost half of the global population is projected to live in water-stressed areas. But taking the right steps now to implement effective water governance that maintains well-functioning watersheds can increase the resilience of both communities and economies. Healthy wetlands and watersheds can also store significant amounts of carbon and are therefore an important ally in climate change mitigation.

Securing water supplies needs a twopronged approach: increasing supply and decreasing demand. The most effective approaches work to maximize nature’s infrastructure such as wetlands, floodplains and mangroves and use economic incentives to reduce domestic, industrial and agricultural consumption and waste.

Wealthier nations can try to buy their way out of water problems. But energy intensive desalination plants and costly pipelines to re-distribute fresh water from one side of a country to another are not the answer. The solutions must lie within the communities who live with water shortages on a daily basis.Their lives and livelihoods depend on how they manage their dwindling resources.Those most burdened by climate change must have clearly defined rights and strong incentives to decide how they can most responsibly use water. But they need help in the form of fair and effective government and policies that link global lessons with local needs. Coordinated decision making demands multi-level communication and a platform for negotiation.

One such platform already exists that can provide a model for water resource managers. The UN Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) helps local authorities in the developing world secure their own renewable natural resources (boosting local adaptation) while reducing emissions (for global mitigation). Could a similarly strategic and cost-effective investment not work for water?

The time has come to integrate the adaptation and mitigation agendas. A coordinated focus on water will reduce people’s vulnerability and strengthen national resilience in the uncertain times we face. Integration is starting to happen. It began in Istanbul earlier this year at the Fifth World Water Forum and should be cemented in Copenhagen in December.

This article is taken from issue 2, 2009 of IUCN's magazine World Conservation,


Dr Mark Smith is Head of IUCN’s Water Programme.

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