Climate Change Is Water Change — Water Experts React to Barcelona Negotiations

Climate Change Is Water Change

By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue

Water advocates and experts are convening in Barcelona to lobby climate negotiators to recognize intersections of water and climate, and for the inclusion of key water language in the working documents that will form the backbone for high-level meetings in Copenhagen in December. So far, they feel, their efforts have fallen on deaf ears.

The Global Public Policy Network, a group that includes the United Nations’ own water group and other water-related organizations, hosted a “water day” on Monday to coincide with the final build-up conference before the United Nations Copenhagen Climate Conference next month. Water experts say they are are deeply dismayed that all references to water have been stricken from the Non Paper 31—the draft text for Copenhagen. The organizations hope they can convince negotiators to re-instate mention of climate change impacts on water.

“Negotiators’ failure to recognize the role that water has in adapting to climate change could have severe implications for future levels of water security and ensuring more resilient systems for the future—in fact it risks undermining many of the objectives of the adaptation climate change discussions,” said Emily Benson, project manager for the Stakeholder Forum, in an email interview with Circle of Blue.

The forum, an international multi-stakeholder organization working on sustainable development, released a statement Tuesday about water “evaporating” from the climate change talks.

“The way that water is managed in and between countries will be a critical component for the success of any efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change. It will also be a vital consideration for many mitigation activities, including hydropower, agriculture and forestry projects,” the statement said.

“Even with the best mitigation strategies, water-related effects of climate change will come,” said Anders Berntell, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute. “The challenge for many nations is, how to adapt. Climate change is in effect water change, since it will be through water that the changes will be realized first and foremost.”

Other experts not at the forum were also worried about the exclusion of water.

“What’s the agenda if they’re not going to mention water?” asked James Workman, author of “Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought.”

“I think that’s short-sighted of negotiators, especially when you look at all the links between water and energy. I can’t quite understand where it’s coming from to just pull water out of the negotiating text,” Workman said.

One climate expert, also not at the conference, was surprised that negotiators were failing to mention something as fundamental as water in the treaty, and speculated that the text may have impinged on some ulterior interest.

“That water and climate are connected is not controversial—it’s one of the conclusions of the IPCC. However, the IPCC is strictly prohibited from being policy prescriptive. Contributors can discuss but not endorse specific policy measures,” said Dr. Stephen Schneider, a biological science professor at Stanford University, in an interview with Circle of Blue.

The IPCC did, however, release a technical report last year on water and climate change. According to the report, “water resource issues have not been adequately addressed in climate change analyses and climate policy formulations.”

As an issue, climate is not faring well in the United States where a recent national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed a decline in concern about climate change. According to the poll, 35 percent of Americans “see global warming as a serious problem,” down from 45 percent in April 2008.

Yet data from a Circle of Blue GlobeScan international public opinion survey found that water problems—scarcity and pollution—are the most troubling issue for people world-wide. Climate change has always ranked below water, according to GlobeScan data.

The poll surveyed 1,000 people in each of 25 countries, and probed 500 in each of the following countries on specific questions: Canada, China, India, Mexico, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Ninety-one percent of respondents indicated they think water shortages are a serious or somewhat serious problem. Eighty-seven percent indicated they are worried about increasing global freshwater shortages.

The amount of people concerned about freshwater shortages has increased five percentage points since 2003, when the opinion polling was first done.

Observers of the talks in Barcelona said climate pact negotiators told them the text of the agreement needed to be shortened before Copenhagen. Water was not considered a significant enough issue to keep in, according to Benson.

For more, see Keith Schneider’s report on the beginnings of the Barcelona conference and behind-the-scenes analysis of the climate negotiations here.

Check back for more coverage from Barcelona as well as Circle of Blue’s upcoming Water+Climate series.

This story has been updated since its first post on November 3, 2009.
Brett Walton is a researcher and reporter for Circle of Blue. Contact Brett Walton

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