Local Solutions for Global Water Challenges
March 28, 2011
Peter G. McCornick
Director of Water, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy at Duke University
We already know that the combined effects of a number of major drivers, including climate change, are causing varied, somewhat unpredictable, and increasingly severe effects on water resources. While efforts to determine the specific impacts of climate change on the local hydrological conditions need to continue, prudent decision makers are already incorporating these additional uncertainties into their planning processes, and considering how to secure and sustain water resources for the population, production systems and the environment. These processes also need to consider how to practically improve the resilience of the systems and how they can recover from the more severe floods and droughts. In the developed world much of this is already happening. In the developing world progress is understandably slower, yet the need is arguably greater.
The specific actions required depend on many local factors, including the anticipated effects of climate change in that area, the relative fragility of the present water resources situation, existing levels of investment in water management facilities and institutions, and the overall governance conditions in the country and the communities. In the developing world, the basic capacity, in terms of human capabilities and physical infrastructure, is barely adequate, and in many cases is deteriorating.
In the Ethiopian highlands, where a number of communities rely on water harvesting as a source of domestic water supply for at least part of the year, the anticipated changes in the seasonality of rainfall could make such techniques less reliable. The necessary adaption may be something along the lines of enhancing the management of the catchment, developing a larger cistern (i.e. increasing storage capacity), or, where feasible, accessing an alternative source, such as drilling a well. These are interventions that local governments, NGOs and other partners in the field are quite familiar with as part of integrated approaches to supporting the development of rural communities.
The effect on the relationship between water and agriculture is another major water-related threat from climate change, especially when combined with other significant drivers such as population growth and surging demand for agricultural products in the urban areas. The critically important Indus basin is a prime example where the disruption to the hydrology of the changing characteristics of the snow melt and receding glaciers, along with the behavior of the monsoons, combine to exacerbate this already water-stressed basin where many of the natural ecosystems are severely damaged and exposes many millions of people and a large portion of the food production system of the region to devastating floods. Adaptation efforts include conserving soil moisture in fields, recognizing the critical role that groundwater plays in the water management systems, and the challenge of governing groundwater and its interconnectivity with the surface water. Furthermore it requires that the surface water management systems are reformed so that water can be used more productively, appropriate allocations made for ecosystems, and, of course, enhancing the resilience of systems to cope with floods.
The changing conditions related to water requires that decision makers across multiple sectors focus on supporting communities in sustainable water resources management, especially securing water supply for domestic needs, water for food security and agriculture, and water for the environment, including avoiding water quality deterioration. Creating the capacity to provide such basic services across a wide range of communities has been all-too elusive in much of the developing world, exacerbated by population pressures, demands from other sectors, degradation of water quality, and now climate change.
As we well know, in water resources management, we need to be especially careful not to champion specific silver bullets, but rather recognize that this global challenge needs relatively local solutions (see our colleagues reporting from communities in Nepal: niwater.org). Ultimately it is the community that will be responsible for adapting their water resources systems; this requires that they are able to access the necessary information, techniques, and financial resources to address such challenges. The government, NGOs, the private sectors, family members working in urban areas or overseas all have important roles to play in supporting the communities to strengthen and sustain institutional capabilities that are resilient to the changing conditions, to identifying the opportunities and challenges at the sub-basin scale, in managing water to enhance food security and generate opportunities for livelihoods, to protect the ecosystems and avoid water quality degradation, and in managing risks, which includes linking the community to viable early warning systems.
All development work must now integrate adaptation planning, this holds especially true for water management. As such, “adaptation” should not be carved out as another insular and underfunded sector. Rather adaptation efforts should be considered in terms of existing development plans and interventions. It is critical that this natural integration be recognized and embraced at all levels.
- Healthy Dialogues, March 2011: Water
- Tears in the Rain: Climate Change Makes Sustainable Development Harder
- World Water Day Podcasts