Why the Climate Promises of Paris Depend on Water

27/04/2016 12:25

The Paris climate deal finally inked by world leaders last week has been hailed as a victory for the planet. But for the half of the world's population who will be living in water-stressed areas in the next decade, it cannot be put in place fast enough.

The water crisis exacerbated by climate change threatens us all.

It is often difficult to pinpoint the specific impact of climate change. But in this year of El Nino, believed responsible for unusual weather patterns, it is not hard to anticipate what the future may hold as the Earth's temperature warms and sea levels rise.

Severe drought has led to warnings of food shortages in Ethiopia and in Malawi. In India, children have died from heat stroke and after falling into deep, nearly-dry wells while trying to collect water in unusually hot, dry conditions.

The poor pay the highest price

As climate change takes hold and the world's temperature warms, these kinds of extreme weather events are expected to become more frequent, and it is the poorest who will pay the heaviest price.

Climate change, water and poverty are inextricably linked. Sustainable development of the world's poorest nations cannot succeed without tackling climate change. And we cannot effectively tackle climate change without addressing the root causes of poverty and inequality, and without changing patterns of development that are not built to last.

The 663 million people who still live without access to an improved source of water, and the nearly 2.4 billion without a toilet, are among the most poor and marginalised in our world, and particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Water sources that have not been protected are easily contaminated. Shallow wells are more likely to run out during long, dry seasons. Disease spreads fast when areas without proper sanitation are flooded.

Providing health and dignity during disaster

Whether communities are coping with drought, with flooding or with disease outbreaks, access to water, good sanitation and hygiene are integral parts of being able to stay alive and healthy, to retain some dignity in the face of disaster, and to recover afterward.

The countries in which WaterAid works are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Communities in countries as far apart as India, Burkina Faso and Nicaragua say that increasingly unpredictable weather is making it hard for them to grow crops and to rely on their traditional water sources - making it hard for them to stay healthy and feed their families.

Dionicia Serapio, 32, doing the laundry at her house. The family has been using contaminated water from an unprotected well nearby; their new rainwater harvesting system is shown in the background. Wawa Bar, Bilwi, Nicaragua. WaterAid/Jordi Ruiz Cirera

"Most of the time the kids get sick when we have the rainy season, sometimes all of the kids in the house get sick at the same time and that is because the water is too dirty," said Dionicia Serapio, 32, in an interview at her family home in Wawa Bar, Bilwi, Nicaragua recently.

Her community on Nicaragua's north Caribbean coast is reachable mainly by boat; their hand-dug wells already dry up in the dry season and flood in the rainy season. Climate change threatens to make the situation even more difficult; Ms Serapio said and her family are looking forward to the completion of a rainwater harvesting system, built by WaterAid partners, to give them an alternative source of clean water year-round.

Too late to reverse the damage

WaterAid welcomes the goal of limiting the world's warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but it's already too late to reverse the damage done. Unless countries keep to their commitments, we're faced with much more of the same, and worse.

It isn't enough to shrug and say climate change is too big for us to tackle. It threatens all of development - so we need to find ways to make development climate-change-proof.

At the community level, solutions can be straightforward. A deep, protected borehole is both a safer water source and more climate-change resilient than a hand-dug well or water from a pond or stream, which is likely to flood in the rains and dry up in drought. Communities can use simple methods to measure and monitor their own water use, and develop their own rules for sharing scarce supplies.

But on a grander scale, we have to demand that countries stick to their promises on climate change. We need to ensure sufficient funding is available to help countries and communities find ways to adapt to these increasingly unpredictable weather patterns.

We need to get different sectors talking. Climate change and water are intertwined and we need to speak each other's language when it comes to planning and funding adaptation efforts. We can no longer have countries develop water policies that don't include climate risks, nor can climate planners operate without consulting key water ministries.

And this part is key: we need to make sure countries are supported to manage their limited water resources effectively, and to ensure that basic human needs are made priority, so that the poorest are not left behind.

With the Paris agreement signed, the promises are down on paper. It's up to each and every one of us to make sure these promises are fulfilled.