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Visible Climate Change & Invisible Water

Christiana_Figueres_Executive_Secretary_of_the_UNFCCCForeign Ministers of six countries comprising ‘The Green Group’, have issued a joint statement to emphasise the strong link between climate change and water. The Green Group is made of the foreign ministers of the UAE, Cape Verde, Costa Rica, Iceland, Singapore and Slovenia. The statement has been released in the run-up to the forthcoming 16th Conference of Parties in Cancun.

Praia, San José, Reykjavík, Singapore,

Ljubljana Abu Dhabi, 26 November 2010

In view of the forthcoming Cancún climate conference, the ministers of foreign affairs of the Green Group wish to underline the link between climate change and water, as well as the importance of improved water management in successfully addressing the impacts of climate change.

A year ago, international attention was focused on the Copenhagen climate conference. World leaders were expected to succeed in reaching a comprehensive global climate agreement. Although the Copenhagen conference fell short of the high expectations, it provided a political framework for negotiations that continued throughout this year and some important decisions are to be made in Cancún to pave the way for the post-2012 climate framework.

Climate change is most often associated with global warming. However, its most severe impact is on the natural water cycle. As stated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, water is the primary medium through which the impact of climate change will be felt by both people and the environment. Climate change affects precipitation patterns: it prolongs drought periods and decreases soil moisture, leading to irreversible land degradation and desertification. It also increases the frequency of extreme meteorological events and water-related natural disasters, such as floods and landslides. Effects of climate change on the world’s oceans are also a cause for great concern. Briefly, water changes are climate change in a nutshell.

Water is indispensable for the survival and health of living beings, for preservation of natural ecosystems and for economic and social development. Therefore, it is imperative that access to safe drinking water and sanitation be recognised also as a human right. Water is a renewable resource but it is also a limited one. Less than 3 per cent of the Earth’s water is fresh. In addition, as the Green Group countries illustrate, water resources are unevenly distributed across the world. Costa Rica, Iceland and Slovenia have an abundance of water resources, while Cape Verde and the United Arab Emirates face serious water scarcity, and Singapore has limited land for reservoirs despite receiving abundant rainfall.

Throughout the world, few things are more precious than safe and adequate water supply. Unfortunately, prospects for the future are grim; according to the UN, more than 2.8 billion people will face severe water stress by 2025. Increased water stress is, of course, not only the result of climate change but also other human pressures, such as population growth and increased economic activity. On the supply side, available water resources are diminishing due to pollution and degradation of freshwater ecosystems, as well as uncontrolled urbanisation and land-use change.

In order to adapt effectively, understanding the relation between water and climate is of crucial importance. Climate change will mostly affect countries and communities that are already under water stress. Vulnerability is not predetermined by economic or regional differences, such as a North-South division. Social resilience is yet another term for the endless human imagination and creativity that developed irrigation systems and water efficiency policies.

Moreover, water also has the potential to mitigate climate change. As a clean energy source, hydropower can replace fossil fuels in electricity generation and, therefore, help reduce greenhouse gas emission. Furthermore, water ecosystems, especially wetlands, function as an important carbon sink, similar to forests.

Despite these facts, it sometimes seems that climate negotiations are neglecting the importance of water. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) refers to water management only once in the context of adaptation to climate change. Similarly, the Bali Action Plan only implies the importance of water management. Water was also omitted in the Copenhagen Accord.

Traditionally, water brings people together; it enhances dialogue, reconciliation and community building. While international negotiations should devote more attention to the complex link between water and climate change, our action should not end at the negotiating table. Past and present, local and global are inextricably entangled. Water management should be placed at the focus of climate action by encouraging states to take ambitious steps in improving water conservation and management and fully integrate them into national adaptation plans. Action is also needed on regional levels; regional strategies are of political, economic and environmental importance, particularly in transboundary river basins.

Although water has its place on the international agenda, its complexity often makes it invisible. It is our collective responsibility to make the water issue more visible. Forums such as the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability can play an important role in this. But the climate negotiations themselves can also provide greater focus on the opportunities that better water management can bring. As the climate conference in Cancun begins, the Green Group wishes to highlight water as the nexus between economic development and environmental sustainability. Water runs through every basin of human development and is therefore a crucial element of any climate change action.


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