How Well We Manage Water Will Determine How Climate Resilient We Are
Published: 18 July 2022
Innovations in water management and adaptive planning can create opportunities for climate adaptation and mitigation.
Water is fundamental to life on earth. It is essential for human wellbeing, economic development, and healthy ecosystems. Asia and the Pacific is home to 60% of the world’s population, but only 36% of its water resources. Around 500 million people lack access to adequate water supply, and 1.14 billion people lack access to improved sanitation. This region, being one of the most disaster-prone areas of the world, has also accounted for 57% of global fatalities from natural hazards since 1970, killing more than 2 million people—41,373 lives per year. Many of these are water-related.
The 2020 Asia Development Water Outlook reports that while water security in the region has generally been improving, 22 out of 49 countries remain water “insecure.” This represents more than 2 billion people or about 50% of the region’s population.
Water security is being increasingly threatened by climate change impacts—from flooding to changing precipitation patterns to drought. It is expected that half of the world’s population will face severe water stress by 2030—putting intense pressure on local economies, communities, and the environment.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report emphasizes the need for accelerated action to adapt to climate change to deal with increasing risks, particularly among low-income groups, while making deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
Strengthening Water Resilience
Given this urgent call to action, water professionals and policy makers in the region must prioritize building water resilience to address rapid urbanization, growing demands for food and energy, the degradation of wetlands and other critical ecosystems, and increased risks from water-related hazards.
The extent to which water security is improved will determine how well we adapt to climate change. Building water resilience will require breaking silos between sectors and promoting integrated water resources management approaches.
Five components from the Asian Development Bank’s forthcoming Water Sector Directional Guide show how improved water management can create opportunities for climate adaptation and mitigation:
Promote inclusiveness and gender equality. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic highlighted the critical role water plays in maintaining public health and the need to expand universal access to water and sanitation, especially for marginalized groups.
Women, for example, often bear the brunt of inadequate water and sanitation services through time spent collecting water and caring for sick family members suffering from water-borne diseases. In Viet Nam’s Mekong Delta, an ADB project positioned women as advocates to promote the use of more hygienic toilets. The results showed that women’s participation is critical in improving sanitation. Documenting women’s experiences to inform water planning processes and engaging them in leadership positions will allow for more targeted and effective interventions. Women are most likely to benefit from improvements in water and can act as change agents.
Build resilience and adaptive capacity. Adaptive planning and management are necessary to address climate change risks in the face of uncertainty. In many farming communities in Asia and the Pacific, climate change has contributed to limiting the sources of fresh surface water and increasing farmers’ reliance on already dwindling groundwater. Moreover, rising sea levels can impact the salinity of drinking water.
To respond to these climate change impacts, deployment of new crop varieties and farming systems are needed to address groundwater depletion and salinity intrusion. A groundwater project in Shandong Provincein the People’s Republic of China combined expertise in adoption of innovative technology through piloting smart greenhouses and groundwater use monitoring systems together with long-term planning across financial, environmental, and regulatory dimensions. Other measures, such as source diversification and climate-proofing of infrastructure, can safeguard drinking water systems.
Foster innovation and technological advancement. Digital solutions can improve the ways safe and clean water is managed and provided. In a water supply project in Kolkata, India, for example, inexpensive sensors are used to monitor water level inundation and quality and quantity of water at treatment plants. The sensors are linked to the water operators’ mobile phones.
Technologies that provide data in real time also allow better management of water networks and drastically reduce nonrevenue water levels. Earth observation technologies, such as those provided by the European Space Agency, can support better water resources management and irrigation efficiency. Adopting smart water technology may seem daunting at the onset, but implementation can start incrementally. Simple and practical cases with minimum functionality, small demonstrations, or pilot projects with minimal investments can be used to test and adapt solutions to local conditions. A project in the island of Tanna in Vanuatu piloted the use of a solar-powered drinking water technology that converts sunshine, air, and rain into safe drinking water that now benefits 30% of the island’s population.
Embrace environmental sustainability and a circular economy. As water scarcity increases, those working in water need to move away from the “take–use–treat–dispose” approach and reuse more treated wastewater at a greater decentralized scale. Water professionals should learn to work with water and nature instead of against it, using nature-based solutions as a means to build water resilience and protect biodiversity.
In Biñan, Laguna in the Philippines, a wastewater treatment plant is applying nature-based technologycomprised of plants, microorganisms, biofilms, and engineered media to break down the wastewater in a biological process that requires less energy and produces less sludge compared to a conventional centralized treatment plant.
Improve governance and catalyze finance. Weak governance and inefficient subsidies contribute to massive wastage and misallocation of water resources. Agriculture consumes about 70% of freshwater. Attracting more private sector investment in water will require not only creating a strong enabling environment but strategically using public resources to blend finance to de-risk investments.
The ADB-OECD report Government at a Glance Southeast Asia 2019 highlighted some of the areas where Southeast Asian countries have made headway in bridging these gaps including adopting new budget tools, and strengthening transparency and reporting requirements.
Climate change resilience is one of the key topics to be discussed during the Asia Water Forum 2022 on 8-11 August.
Asian Development Bank. 2020. Asian Water Development Outlook 2020: Advancing Water Security across Asia and the Pacific. Manila.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2022. Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Working Group II Contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. 2020. UN World Water Development Report 2020: Water and Climate Change. Paris.
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