Key messages

1. Waking Up to Climate Change

The water sector has paid little attention to and is often unaware of the expected impacts of climate change on future water resources.

Water managers around the world are often unaware of the changes that are likely to occur in the world's hydrological cycle over the next few decades. Given their involvement in water resources developments that often take decades to materialise, they will need to pay more attention to incorporating climate change considerations into their work

2. Mounting Evidence, Emerging Responses

Climate change is here and will be with us for a long time to come. It will have a significant impact on water resources and their management.

Over the last 100 years, the global climate has warmed by an average of 0.5 degrees Celsius, owing in part to greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Unless concerted action is taken to dramatically reduce these emissions, climate models project that the Earth will warm by another 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius over the next century. These changes will have a substantial destabilising effect on the hydrological cycle, resulting in greater variability in precipitation and stream flows, and increasing intensity of extreme hydrological events.

Water professionals will need to adapt to climate change.

Existing commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are insufficient to halt present climate change, making adaptation a necessity. On their own, neither planned nor spontaneous adaptation would be able to mobilise the society-wide movement for adaptation that will be needed. A combination of approaches, ranging from engineering types to societal processes, will be required. This means a combined top-down / bottom-up approach should be adopted that brings together the public and private sectors, and civil society.

Societies will need to live with the greater uncertainty arising from climate change.

Existing climate data and models have been instrumental in pointing out some general changes in the hydrological cycle that are triggered by climate change. They will not be able, however, to substantially reduce current uncertainty and projected changes in climatic conditions at scales required for water management. Therefore existing risk and uncertainty management approaches need to incorporate climate scenario analysis and vulnerability assessments.

3. Living with Uncertainty

To adapt to climate change, water professionals will need to reinforce the current changes in water management priorities.

An increasing emphasis is now being placed on integrated approaches for water management to respond to changing social, environmental, economic and political realities. Current water resources planning and management is beginning to take a system's approach, emphasizing the role of ecosystem goods and services. Maintaining and strengthening the delivery of these goods and services can be an important aspect of adaptation to climate change.

Adaptation to climate change will require water managers and users to deal more effectively with risks and uncertainties.

Current approaches to risk management, such as expert-based operational rules, are generally inadequate when it comes to dealing with climate change impacts. Such approaches only incorporate known risks and are unable to address the impacts of unknown risks and uncertainties, including those stemming from climate change. Managing risk and dealing with uncertainty in river basins will become a key priority in the near future. This can be achieved using various measures, including monitoring known hazards and risks, reducing the unknown risks through system research, and determining the range and type of relevant uncertainties. Such actions can reduce existing uncertainty to a minimum.

The first priority for adaptation should be to reduce the vulnerabilities of people and societies to shifts in hydro-meteorological trends, increased variability and extreme events.

An increase in the occurrence of floods, droughts and other extreme weather events due to climate change poses a considerable threat to national economies and sustainable development. Current and future risks and uncertainties associated with such weather-related problems need to be addressed to safeguard people and societies from increased loss of life, property and assets. Particular attention needs to be paid to the most vulnerable countries and the most vulnerable groups within societies.

A second adaptation priority will be to protect and restore ecosystems that provide critical land and water resources and services.

Ongoing degradation of water and land resources threatens the continued production of goods and services from river basin ecosystems. Protection and restoration of such ecosystems is urgently needed to maintain and restore natural capacities that support the protection of people and assets against increased climate variability and extreme events.

A third adaptation priority will be to close the gap between water supply and demand.

In many regions, water demand now exceeds or threatens to outstrip sustainable levels of supply. Conventional strategies to increase water supply can no longer meet growing future needs, and are unable to cope with the uncertainty arising from increased climate variability and climate change. Sustained efforts thus need to be made to reduce water demand and mobilise non-conventional water resources through appropriate policies, laws, incentives and technical measures. The responsibilities of various actors for this will need to be clearly set out.

4. Beyond Pipes, Pumps, and Ponds

Adapting water management to climate change will require going beyond a “technical quick fix” by catalysing a broad societal process.

Conventional practices alone are ill-equiped to deal with the projected changes to water regimes. The risks and uncertainties induced by climate change means water resources management cannot be handled by experts alone. Wider stakeholder involvement and transparency is therefore required to build political support for sharing the burden and benefits of the impacts of climate change.

Adapting water management to climate change will require building the capacity of people and institutions.

Adaptation of the water sector to climate change will require the training of engineers, hydrologists, planners and many other professionals on these issues. It will require investing in strengthening the ability of people to manage their water resources more efficiently and equitably. Making resources available for strengthening both institutional and individual capacities is a critical early step in adapting to climate change.

Maintaining and increasing social capital will be needed to build the capacity to coordinate and participate in adaptation efforts.

The capacity of societies to adapt depends on their ability to maintain and increase their social capital. Building trust, instilling norms and maintaining societal networks will facilitate cooperation in the face of the challenges raised by climate change. A deliberate effort is needed to enlarge social capital by raising awareness, organizing special events, and securing financial and other support from community-based groups.

Water users and managers will need to adopt an adaptive management style and be prepared to engage in “social learning”.

Water resources are part of complex ecosystems that are not yet fully understood. As climate change adds further risks and uncertainties, a water resources management style is needed that is flexible enough to adjust to ongoing change. Monitoring and evaluating performance is an essential part of an adaptive management style that forms the corner stone of “social-learning”– that is, learning with stakeholders how best to manage the shared water resource.

Adaptation to climate change will require improving water-conflict management and strengthening other relevant skills.

Climate change will intensify water-stress and hazards and the conflicts associated in dealing with these. Adaptation to climate change will therefore need to pay explicit attention to managing water conflicts and assisting water users and managers to find agreeable solutions for sharing their common resource. Building these assets requires special attention as it is often overlooked when discussing adaptation to climate change.

5. Meeting the Challenge

National Adaptation Coalitions will need to be set-up to bring together the relevant water-actors and develop a society-wide process of adaptation.

Water professionals cannot define strategic priorities for adaptation to climate change alone. They will need to work with all interested groups and stakeholders brought together through National Adaptation Coalitions. These coalitions will need the capacity to innovate, adapt and manage conflicts.

Coalitions will need to make adaptation work for people and involve them through national and local forums.

Determining what people want through dialogues, consultations, and other forums is critical if a National Adaptation Coalition is to work. These Coalitions need to care for people by designing actions that promote short-term benefits for those involved. To have lasting impact, stakeholders will need to see benefits from investing in the adaptation process.

Coalitions will need to catalyse innovation through a series of experiments that kick-start adaptation in the water sector.

Encouraging innovative water users and water professionals to experiment with new ideas forms a critical element in getting adaptation started. By learning through experimentation, all water actors can contribute to delivering on progress and innovation in an incremental and sustainable way.

Coalitions will need to engage political leaders to support the adaptation process and instil the underlying core values.

A critical first step for National Adaptation Coalitions is to identify and agree on a set of core values that underlies the way they want to deal with climate change. Communicating these values and the actions required to a wider audience is the main task of leaders of government, business and civil society. Making adaptation a success requires generating political buy-in from key interest groups, and using political opportunities to move forward.

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