Food & water | The World

9 March 2022

Policymakers must integrate into their climate adaptation plans the management and protection of one of the world’s most important assets – water infrastructure, Cindy Wallis-Lage and Zeynep Kisoglu Erdal write.

Achieving water security requires policymakers to think in parallel paths of sustainability, to create solutions that meet today’s needs without hurting future generations, and resilience, to build the capacity to adapt to change and continue to develop and grow.

They must also think holistically and address the frail, aging infrastructure many countries have in place, as well as the lack of infrastructure in other countries. Nearly 25 per cent of the world’s population doesn’t have clean water access and almost 50 per cent do not have access to safely managed sanitation.

Worldwide, water infrastructure, and the lack thereof, is being impacted by the changing climate, yet current practices continue to contribute to climate change. This vicious cycle demands a new approach.

Creating solutions to provide water security for today and the future is no easy task. It will require strong leadership and commitment from the whole community – government entities, regulatory agencies, businesses, and private citizens – to prioritise and to invest in a future that builds on today and provides a trajectory that is unlike the past.

To achieve water security, policymakers must enable the systemic resilience needed to manage and mitigate the impacts of climate change, population growth, and economic and social instability. This requires a decoupling of water supply and climate with policies that consider how to adapt water management approaches to the impacts of climate change.

Water security is dependent on systems thinking in combination with long-range planning for a flexible, phased, and integrated implementation of water infrastructure that uses innovative engineering and nature-based approaches.

More on this: The water-climate change emergency

This isn’t about building ‘more’ or ‘better versions’ of what we have. Rather, it is fundamentally changing approaches to address the needs of a changing environment.

Critical to creating tomorrow’s sustainable and resilient infrastructure is how we ‘ACT’.

The ‘A’ in ACT stands for anticipation of the future, the ‘C’ for creation of a roadmap, and the ‘T’ for the eventual transformation of the water sector.

‘Anticipation’ is the first important element of water security. Leaders need the ability to anticipate future operating conditions that might occur and marry those with today’s needs.

An inherent fear of failure in combination with the vastness and complexity of risks and issues can drive indecision.

Now more than ever, this is a challenge, as compounding climate events pile up, creating complex scenarios. Many events can occur simultaneously, like heat waves and drought, or in sequence, like consecutive floods, or droughts followed by floods.

To anticipate the various types of climate events, along with their increasing frequency and severity, requires collaboration between engineers, climate scientists, modelers, researchers, and utilities to gather insight for any given community. There is no one-size-fits-all methodology. Anticipating various conditions requires insight from a broad spectrum of expertise.

The second important goal is ‘creation’ of an adaptation roadmap. Once leaders know what to do, they can create a roadmap that identifies options that start with low- or no-regret actions which complement anticipated future actions.

Future actions are then taken as early signs that the modelling scenarios are validated. Foundational to a successful roadmap is a methodology that can evaluate a water system’s capacity to perform given various risks and under various climate event scenarios.

More on this: Delivering water justice today

Critical to such a roadmap’s success is the development of signposts that inform timely and reliable investments for community water security. It also requires commitment from those in leadership to follow the roadmap and make the necessary investments when they are identified.

The final goal is to ‘transform’ the thinking around water security to incorporate a broader view. To achieve water security, leaders must transform the industry and challenge conventional paradigms of doing just enough to get by. This requires a focus on ‘systems thinking’, which considers the interconnection of engineered and natural ecosystems and how they can operate together in response to a variety of changing conditions.

Leaders must view systems thinking through the lenses of both engineering and ecological resilience. Engineering resilience focuses on capacity in combination with flexibility and redundancy. On the other hand, ecological resilience considers the occurrence of major changes and the ability of the system to absorb large shocks without collapse.

Further, a systems thinking approach must also include future-proofed energy, transportation, and communication infrastructure to create the true resilience needed for water security.

At the heart of transformation is technology, including adapting existing treatment technologies and adopting new technologies that drive efficiency, reduce carbon emissions and incorporate nature-based solutions. To accelerate the water security journey, policy must accelerate the adoption of new technology: a traditional 15-year adoption rate is unacceptable.

Transforming also means embracing digital technology to drive intelligence regarding the real-time health of water infrastructure. ‘Big data’ gives the water sector the opportunity to collect and analyse vast amounts of data to create a 360-degree view of water infrastructure, which can be used to more effectively and successfully manage extreme events.

Cohesive data analytics can facilitate timely decisions on spending, provide insights on system risk, performance optimisation, and greater predictability for asset maintenance and replacement.

Finally, the outcomes of COP26 clearly highlight that the world must move beyond commitments and find real ways to mitigate climate change if it hopes to change the trajectory of global temperatures.

What’s more, pledges and actions cannot focus solely on carbon. Leaders must integrate water management into their plans to effectively address climate change. By moving the focus from the cost of action to an investment in our future, policymakers can move the needle on both water security and carbon mitigation. They must start the resiliency journey by ‘ACTing’ now, and doing so with urgency and purpose.

The human race depends on it.

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