Water and Global Climate Action at COP28

Water represents the tip of the spear of mounting global climate change impacts. Worsening floods, droughts, and extreme storms all manifest through water. Since 2000, water-related hazards have accounted for nearly three-quarters of all natural disasters worldwide. At the same time, as climate change increasingly scrambles precipitation patterns around the globe, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that warming of 2 degrees Celsius could expose up to 3 billion people to growing water scarcity. Yet it was not until last year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt that international climate negotiators included water in the final agreement of the annual global summits. For the first time, the COP27 decision, known as the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan after the conference host city, pressed countries to integrate water into their climate adaptation efforts. COP28, held from November 30 to December 12 this year in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), reinforced and expanded this call, urging both country parties and non-state stakeholders to increase their ambition and enhance adaptation. But policymakers must now turn this exhortation into action.

Heading to Dubai, the water policy community hoped to build on the initial momentum gained in Egypt. As the conference hosts, the UAE promised to “drive water up the climate agenda,” announcing three thematic priorities: freshwater ecosystems, urban water resilience, and water-resilient food systems. During its COP presidency, the UAE formed a partnership with the Netherlands and Tajikistan to act as COP28 “water champions” and devoted a full day of the conference agenda to food, water, and agriculture, including a high-level ministerial dialogue. Beyond formal diplomacy, the COP meetings represent a signal global policy forum. COP28 was attended by nearly 100,000 participants. Over two weeks, Dubai hosted more than 250 water-related panel sessions, workshops, and other events, and housed a dedicated “Water4Climate” pavilion and knowledge hub.

COP28 undoubtedly helped to bring unprecedented focus on water issues to international climate policy circles. Significantly, the meeting was tasked to elaborate on the Global Goal on Adaptation previously established by the 2015 Paris Agreement. Negotiators in Dubai agreed that water must figure prominently in the framework meant to guide global adaptation efforts. Moving markedly beyond COP27, the COP28 cover decision urged parties and stakeholders to “accelerate swift action at scale and at all levels, from local to global,” to significantly reduce climate-related water scarcity, enhance resilience to water-related hazards, and realize a climate-resilient water supply.

Likewise, the conference’s Food, Agriculture, and Water Day witnessed multiple policy engagements to strengthen water security. The ministerial dialogue on building water-resilient food systems, for example, launched a two-year partnership by the UAE and Brazil to assist parties to incorporate water and food into their national climate strategies. Similarly, more than 30 new countries joined the Freshwater Challenge, an initiative inaugurated at the 2023 UN Water Conference to restore 300,000 kilometers of rivers and 350 million hectares of wetlands by 2030. And by the conference’s close, 159 countries had signed on to the UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action.

Whether world decisionmakers will succeed in following heightened attention with robust execution, though, remains to be seen. Unfortunately, the international community has demonstrated a disappointingly spotty record for delivering on implementation. The Global Goal on Adaptation exemplifies the challenges ahead. To be effective, adaptation strategies must be context specific. Yet the thematic framework set out in Dubai is notably vague. The more specific goals enunciated in early negotiating drafts were universally diluted into aspirational objectives of “reducing” water-related risks and “enhancing” water-related resilience.

More worrisomely, COP28 did little to assuage developing countries’ long-standing concerns about the lack of adaptation funding. Adaptation measures often struggle to attract the necessary investment. It can be difficult for private funders to evaluate or collect the financial benefits from projects, such as drought early warning systems or flood-resistant housing, that can significantly reduce adverse climate impacts but don’t readily generate “investable” revenue returns. Poorer developing states are both more vulnerable to escalating climate pressures and the least able to adapt to them. At COP15 in 2009, developed countries committed to mobilize USD 100 billion annually by 2020 for climate action (mitigation and adaptation) in developing countries. They have yet to fulfill that pledge. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), adaptation finance needs in developing nations are 10 to 18 times larger than the flows of public finance for adaptation from developed states, resulting in an estimated funding gap of USD 194–366 billion per year. The water sector particularly suffers from this shortfall. The UNEP’s analysis of the available data suggests that managing water and flooding represents 30 percent of developing countries’ adaptation costs—the single largest need—but receives only 15 percent of international public finance flows. COP28 reached no conclusion on where the money will come from.

Even with strengthened adaptation efforts, many negative climate consequences will occur, especially affecting developing countries. At COP27, under pressure from developing nations, the developed states—historically responsible for the greater share of accumulated climate warming emissions—accepted the creation of dedicated funding arrangements to address “loss and damage” wrought by climate change. Operationalized on the opening day of COP28, the fund will likely direct much of its resources to remediating water-related impacts. Water-related risks accounted for more than 90 percent of the disaster-affected population over the past 10 years and almost 95 percent of infrastructure loss and damage. Yet though a number of countries in Dubai voluntarily pledged some USD 792 million to the nascent loss and damage purse, negotiators left COP28 with no agreement requiring developed countries to contribute to the fund going forward. By comparison, water, weather, and climate-related disasters are calculated to have inflicted global economic losses averaging USD 202 millionevery day over the past 50 years.

Ultimately, the spadework of climate policy implementation takes place at the national and subnational levels. COP28 marked the conclusion of the first ever “global stocktake” of climate action since the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement. The two-year-long stocktaking process represents a key component of the Paris Agreement “ratchet mechanism,” by which countries are intended to regularly strengthen their engagements over time to reach collective climate goals. The outcome of the stocktake produced in Dubai is meant to guide nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and national adaptation plans (NAPs), the state-level formulations of countries’ climate policy approaches under the Paris Agreement. COP28’s decision urging parties to accelerate actions promoting water security and resilience should help further efforts to center water in national climate strategies.

Water must be more systematically integrated into global climate policy at all levels. Despite rising vulnerabilities to water-related climate pressures, many developing countries have not directly incorporated water into their adaptation planning. The latest assessment of developing country NAPs found that 41 percent of established plans explicitly mentioned water resources as a key adaptation sector, though many raised related sectors such as ecosystems and services. (By September 2023, 142 developing country parties had taken steps to begin a NAP and, as of November 2023, 49 had submitted a NAP.) Water can also play a greater role in climate mitigation. A 2021 analysis of NDCs showed that some 60 percent contained mitigation measures from ecosystems such as wetlands and tropical mangroves, for example. A third of NDCs included commitments to reduce emissions from wastewater. 

The climate crisis is also a water crisis. Developing countries are especially at risk. According to the World Bank, absent substantial policy changes, by 2050, water scarcity impacts could depress GDP growth by 6–14 percent across much of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. For all countries, climate solutions must be water solutions too.

David Michel is the senior fellow for water security with the Global Food and Water Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

David Michel
Senior Fellow, Global Food and Water Security Program