Welcome to “What’s Up With Water,” your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann.
In Canada, an Indigenous community is celebrating the arrival of clean drinking water. For the first time in 24 years, Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has water that meets national standards. Shoal Lake 40 is on the Ontario-Manitoba border. The CBC reports that last week, residents marked the opening of their first centralized water treatment facility. Although they consider the $33 million facility a victory, other communities face a long road to clean water. At the end of August, thirty-two First Nations across Canada were still being told to boil their water before using it.
Around the world, it was another deadly year for environmental activists. Global Witness is a nonprofit group that tracks the murders of activists. The group’s annual report for 2020 found that 227 environmental advocates were killed for their activism, a new record high. The most dangerous countries were Columbia, Mexico and the Philippines, accounting for half of the killings. The report found that 20 of the lethal attacks on activists were linked to the water and dams sector. The report’s authors say that although 2020 broke the record as the deadliest year for environmental activists, the numbers are likely even higher, since many attacks are not reported.
In the United States, the risk of flooding depends on a family’s ZIP code and its wealth. A National Public Radio investigation found that a federal agency providing housing to low-income families is often offering them riskier properties. NPR said that homes sold by the Department of Housing and Urban Development are disproportionately located in flood-prone places. More so, the investigation found that the agency does not fully disclose the potential costs and dangers of living in hazardous areas.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on how water fits into the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference.
When diplomats and government ministers converge on Glasgow this fall, they hope to rekindle pivotal negotiations on global climate that were dampened during the pandemic. They will confront a world much altered since their last convention.
As Covid-19 continues to rampage globally, it has underscored the the contrast between the resources available to the rich and to the poor when dealing with environmental stressors. But further, floods in Germany’s Ahr Valley and wildfires in Greece and the American West prove that no country, rich or poor, is immune to the terrors of a fevered planet, with calamities that were summarized in a recent climate science report from the United Nations.
That report, in the technical language of probabilities and scenarios, emphasized the urgency of the moment. It stressed the need to reduce the release of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, and to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The report also said it is necessary to enable communities to live with the challenges already confronting them such as extreme weather, acidifying oceans, and rising seas.
Over the past year, torrential floods, exhausting droughts, and deadly heat waves have sharpened focus on the mandate to adapt. Adaptation is moving up the agenda in the weeks preceding the UN’s 26th Climate Change Conference, which runs from October 31 to November 12. Some have taken to calling the Glasgow meeting the “adaptation convention.”
Water advocates view the attention to adaptation as an opportunity. Water has been relatively neglected in past UN climate conventions, even though the consequences of climate change are largely felt through water, from drought to flood. This critical connection between water and climate is not reflected in relationships between water experts and climate policymakers.
Howard Bamsey is chair of the Global Water Partnership, an advocacy and skills-building network. He says that water experts and officials making decisions about responding to climate change are often in different rooms. This time around, Bamsey and others are working to shatter the wall.
Global Water Partnership is one of many water groups hoping to elevate their issue in Glasgow and bridge the water-climate policy divide. Outside of official negotiations, there will be a circus of side events and thematic discussions. A water “pavilion” will be a hub for conversation and a way to put water in the climate context, reminding delegates that climate change is water change.
Ingrid Timboe is a co-chair of the water pavilion. She said that water isn’t just important for adapting to climate change. It’s also an essential consideration as countries plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris agreement. Unless fossil fuel use declines steeply and swiftly, it will be necessary to pursue options such as removing carbon from the air or growing crops as a fuel stock. But carbon removal and fuel crops have significant tradeoffs for water supply and water quality. Both options can increase water use, and biofuel production adds the potential for nutrients to pollute waterways.
Timboe hopes that the water pavilion will stimulate discussion between experts on energy and agriculture that will cross into the official climate negotiations. She told Circle of Blue “We’re aiming to highlight work happening on the ground to address mitigation and adaptation and to really push the conversation forward on action, not just on talking, which we do a lot of.”
The planet is already 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial times, closing in on the desired limit of 1.5 degrees.
Bamsey said that action requires several gaps to be bridged. For example, there is no global UN framework for water as there is for other complex environmental problems like climate, desertification, and biodiversity. As Henk Ovink, the Netherlands’ special envoy for international water, put it, “The moment you want to bring water to a political table, there is no political table.”
There are other hurdles as well. The sheer number of water groups, focused on everything from local watersheds to global wetlands to utility performance, means that a unified message can be lost in the chatter. And there’s tendency in international meetings for issues to stay in separate boxes. Breaking out of boxes is something that Dean Muruven and his colleagues at the World Wildlife Fund aim to do in Glasgow. As the group’s global policy manager for fresh water, he wants to expand the audience for water. He said “We’re less interested in being pigeonholed in the box that WWF would typically be pigeonholed in, and that’s the ministry of environment.” Muruven wants meetings with leaders who deal with money – ministers of finance or planning. He explained, “We’re trying to think of this as a development priority as opposed to a nature conservation priority.”
The World Wildlife Fund intends to clarify the concept of water as a climate response by highlighting real-world projects. One is restoring the Lukanga swamp, an ecosystem that feeds into the Zambezi and is critical for Zambia’s water and energy security. Another is fortifying urban wetlands in Rwanda’s capital Kigali to provide flood protection and green space.
The trick to selling these sorts of projects to government ministers, Muruven said, is to treat them not as environmental work but as planks in a development strategy. For instance, wetlands which buffer floods could protect that new highway from unnecessary damage. Muruven said “We’ve taken the conservation benefit and put that secondary. The primary benefit is trying to solve another societal issue that countries have to deal with.”
Besides what issues are discussed at the UN Climate Change Conference, and how they are discussed, there is also the matter of who will be discussing them. The UK government is strongly recommending that all convention participants be fully vaccinated. The unequal distribution of vaccines means that many countries have extremely low vaccination rates.  An international coalition of climate activist groups asked for the convention to be postponed, but the UK government is pushing ahead. It remains to be seen if capacity limits will restrict the number of people in meeting rooms, which would diminish the chances for collaboration.
Despite these hurdles, water advocates see Glasgow as their best chance to unite water and climate dialogues that have been running on parallel tracks. According to Muruven, “The opportunity is now.”
And that’s “What’s Up With Water,” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis await you at This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.