Global Water Partnership

A birds’ eye view of the challenges of climate change and water

Nyhet   •   Dec 09, 2009 11:15 CET

Many of us participants arrived in Copenhagen by air. And some of us are feeling guilty about making the climate problem worse even as we try to solve it. But let’s put that guilty conscience to good use, and not just by planting the statutory “conscience tree”.

Take a birds eye view of what you flew over, on the way here, understand what it means for climate change and the water resources that are the indicator of CC’s impact. Then let’s ask what COP15 is going to do to address the challenges. And, as important, what action are you going to take?

On my way to Copenhagen from Johannesburg, the pilot had to divert around some heavy thunderstorms – we do expect weather systems to be more energetic as a consequence of global warming with higher winds and more intense rainfall.

The diversion took us closer than usual to Botswana’s Okavango delta, fed by Southern Africa’s third largest river. Enjoy it while you can. The future of that massive wetland into which the river disappears is uncertain. If predictions about declining rainfall, increased aridity and reduced flows come true, the flooded area could shrink by more than 50%.  How will we balance the needs of the people in that arid region with that of the unique ecosystem?

That is not the challenge faced on the Congo river over which we flew a few hours later. If anything, a warmer earth and more active hydrological cycle will see even more water flowing in that great river, the 2nd largest, by volume, in the world, driven by all that additional solar energy. How can Africa tap that renewable energy, enough to power the whole continent, sustainably?

It’s the same question as we fly over Mount Cameroon where average rainfall is 10 000mm a year – no wonder it is called the water tower of West Africa. The rivers that flow offthe mountain could generated 50 000 MW of electricity. But why is the power not harnessed? Might power generation help to conserve the mountain forests if the benefits were shared with all concerned?

Yet in a matter of a few hundred kilometres, we are over what remains of Lake Chad, a rapidly shrinking water body. What a contrast! History tells us that the lake has changed size before but if current trends continue, it will dry up altogether. What is really happening though? Despite the fine words about climate challenges, there is less monitoring of the rivers that flow into the lake than even a few decades ago, so its hard to tell. We take great pictures of the shrinking lake from space, but without local data to guide their interpretation we cannot understand what they mean. How can we remedy the information drought in the midst of the data deluge?

Over Libya, we are reminded of the substantial reserves of water that lie underground. It is even more difficult to understand where that water comes from and how it is recharged. But at least while they may clash over football, Algeria and Egypt are working with Libya and other neighbours, to understand better how this hidden, shared, resource can best be managed.

With a little background, there is so much that we can learn from such a bird’s eye view, even before we fly over an Italy scarred by fires, across the Alps where the dwindling of “snow reservoirs” threaten countries downstream with both floods and low flows in dry seasons.

There is no shortage of problems to address, whether they arise directly as from climate change or just because of climate’s natural variability. Many of them are written in water.

So what will YOU do as a penance for the damage you have done by coming here?

Choose one intervention to help respond to the challenges you have seen:

- Take action to strengthen the understanding and management of water resources in one of the vulnerable countries

-  Act to help the people on the ground to take decisions that make sense in the face of growing challenges.

-  Support action to use the immense potential for renewable and sustainable development that the water resources offer

And if you still insist on planting that tree, remember that trees can be part of the problem as well as the solution. In South Africa, plantation forestry and wild invasions of alien trees use scarce water, and have dried up streams and depleted groundwater. So if you do plant a tree to atone for your CO2emissions, make sure it is the right tree in the right place.

Whatever else you do though, make sure that your trip here sows the right seeds, in the right place. Think about it, as you fly home.

Mike Müller
GWP Technical Committee Member at COP 15 in Copenhagen

Published in Outreach, a daily publication of Stakeholder Forum at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, Issue 8 December 2009. Read the whole Outreach publication here: