Climate change: A scapegoat for all of the world's water woes?

20 March 2009
Ahead of World Water Day on 22 March, 20,000 people have gathered in Istanbul to discuss the world’s water problems. Not all are government ministers, NGO activists and water professionals. A party of noisy school kids jostle for space with the suits, clutching umbrellas and scooping up the literature on display. Most of it will end in the bin, but those scanning the headlines will see the same two words again and again: climate change.

Climate change and adaptation is a central topic of the 5th World Water Forum (WWF) in Istanbul. It is the lead theme for the political and thematic processes, and the topic in a High-Level Panel session. Staff from the Water Policy Programme at ODI were invited to present in a major session on adaptation on the back of four ‘water and climate change’ Background Notes prepared in the run up to the forum. The notes deal with adaptation planning, the sustainability of rural water supplies in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), flood risk and food security. These, in turn, follow a DFID-funded meeting series hosted by ODI, which focuses on water and climate change issues in the final event.     

Is the overwhelming emphasis on water and climate change justified? Certainly water is predicted to be the primary medium through which early climate change impacts will be felt by people, ecosystems and economies. Both observational records and climate projections provide strong evidence that freshwater resources are vulnerable, and have the potential to be strongly affected. However, the recent IPCC Technical Report on climate change and water recognises impacts on water have yet to be adequately addressed in either scientific analyses or water policy - an issue that will be discussed at a forthcoming meeting hosted by ODI in Parliament on 30 March.  

But nagging questions remain. How do we separate out the impacts of climate change from those related to socio-economic and demographic trends, and should we  deal with adaptation as a separate development issue? Separating impacts and responses is not easy, but it is clear that climate change is one of a number of pressures on water and livelihoods.

Take demographic change in sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast to the lack of knowledge on the direction and magnitude of hydrological changes under different climate change scenarios, the prospects of demographic change in the 21st century are known with some certainty. The population there  is expected to increase from 700 million in 2007 to 1100 million in 2030 and 1500 million by 2050, and populations will become increasingly urban. Overall water demand can therefore be expected to more than double in the first half of the 21st century, without considering rises in per capita demand for food and water. In Ethiopia, the figures are particularly alarming. The population is expected to increase from 77 million in 2007 to around 146 million by 2050, an increase of almost 90 per cent         

What are the implications for development, and for adaptation? There are perhaps two main conclusions. Firstly, treating development and adaptation as separate issues is misguided. In Ethiopia, extending access to secure water and sanitation, and reducing dependence on unprotected water sources, is central to both poverty reduction and adaptation. This is simply ‘good development in a hostile climate’, in a context where access to water rather than its absolute availability will remain key.

Yet despite all the calls for adaptation ‘mainstreaming’ - in Istanbul it is treated as a separate subject; other sessions in different halls focus on water management, water supply and sanitation, irrigation and disaster management. Second, a sense of perspective is needed. There is a real danger that climate change is crowding out other, inter-related concerns around demographic shifts, urbanisation, water pollution and changing land use. There are multiple pressures on water. Climate change is one of them.