Water and Climate 5: Policy and Law

Post by Andrew Allan

On Sunday 22nd March it was World Water Day, and this year’s theme was ‘water and climate change’. To honour the event, we are publishing five blog posts exploring different sides of the multifaceted relationship between water and climate change. Each post highlights research at the Centre that touches on these, some of the most urgent problems facing humanity today. Today’s post considers how better water governance can help address some of the issues covered in our earlier posts this week. Read together, these blogs indicate the degree of complexity involved in responding to particular areas where climate change impacts on water. Decisions that focus solely on energy, for example, will miss aspects of flood management, and vice versa.

Aligning sectoral policies in ways that facilitate effective adaptation is notoriously difficult. The need for coordinated government planning and responses across sectors and scales is particularly acute in relation to broad concepts like sustainable development. It is also one of the reasons why success is often so tricky to achieve in these areas. Climate change is no different: states seldom have ministries or agencies that are devoted to it alone, in part because of the fact that its impacts are felt across so many areas of life. Institutional frameworks for water also tend to be spread across a number of government bodies (separating the management of quantity, quality, surface and ground waters for instance), complicating matters further. An ever-expanding range of indicators have been established to try to assess the quality of the governance of water, including its institutional effectiveness – the OECD’s Water Governance Initiative is a great example of a comprehensive effort to assess this.

One of the elements that is often absent in this context is recognition of the importance of congruence across policy and law. Achievement of policy objectives, to the extent that law is needed, requires legal frameworks that are supportive and not actively hostile. Where a coherent and inclusive water policy has been developed and finalised (rather than being left at draft status), it should ideally provide some sense of deadlines that can then inform implementation strategies.

This question of timing is of particular concern given the timelines set by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. A quick glance at practice globally suggests that the development of a decent water policy is likely to take a few years. Translating this into practice – e.g. through law, economic tools and infrastructure development – will take three or four more years potentially. In relation to the legal frameworks that are put in place to do this, achievement of the standards sought will take much longer however: South Africa’s National Water Act has been in place since 1998 but still has a long way to go before it is fully implemented. Similarly, the EU Water Framework Directive came into force in 2000 but has not yet achieved its environmental objectives. This suggests that a more realistic timeline for the realisation of Sustainable Development Goal 6 on water might be 2050 rather than 2030 for countries that do not yet have a workable policy in place. Ensuring that adaptation to the impacts of climate change can be incorporated into water policy and law at this stage will prevent problems in the future and increase the longevity of both. 

Water and Climate 4: Ice

Post by Simon Cook

On Sunday 22nd March it was World Water Day, and this year’s theme was ‘water and climate change’. To honour the event, we are publishing five blog posts exploring different sides of the multifaceted relationship between water and climate change. Each post highlights research at the Centre that touches on these, some of the most urgent problems facing humanity today. Today’s post considers how climate change is altering the extent of the world’s cold regions, and the implications of this for human societies.

Ice is found in different forms in the Polar and high-mountain regions of the Earth. Glaciers form on land where snow accumulates and is compressed by the weight of overlying snow to form firn, and then ice. By definition, a glacier must flow. The weight of the glacier is pulled down-slope under the influence of gravity. Whereas glaciers are confined to valleys, ice sheets can envelope entire continents. Today, there are two ice sheets on Earth: Greenland and Antarctica (although Antarctica is itself composed of two ice sheets – East and West – and a glaciated Peninsula). Parts of Antarctica are buttressed by floating ice called ice shelves. Free-floating sea ice, such as at the North Pole, is created when sea water freezes. On land, beyond the glacier margins, it is common to find permafrost – frozen soil and rock. Permafrost is particularly prevalent in the high-Arctic in places like Canada and Russia.

The higher temperatures associated with climate change are causing the Earth’s ice to melt or thaw. Meltwater flowing into the oceans contributes to sea level rise. Melting also changes the rapidity of glacier flow, as it lubricates the base of the glacier and enhances sliding. Where glaciers meet the ocean, warming ocean temperatures also cause rapid glacier recession through enhanced calving. Faster ice and more rapid melting mean that more water is discharged to the oceans, contributing to higher relative sea levels. Sea level rise poses a significant threat to coastal communities worldwide, although its effects are uneven and complex.

Feedbacks in the cryosphere-climate system mean that changes to ice cover can amplify the pace of change. In particular, the sea ice of the North Polar region has a high albedo, which means that it reflects a high proportion of the Sun’s energy. This albedo effect acts to cool the planet. As the ice melts, the effect is reduced, which contributes to global warming.

Glacial meltwater reservoir in the Peruvian Andes

In mountainous areas, some communities rely on seasonal glacial meltwater for consumption and hydropower. In the short-term, they can harness the increased levels of meltwater caused by climate change, but in the long-term, as glaciers recede, their water supplies are threatened because glaciers become too small to sustain the same levels of meltwater discharge. In some cases, the initial increase in meltwater also poses a flood risk to downstream communities if it ponds in lakes, which can burst.


Water and Climate 3: Energy

Post by Volker Roeben and Rafael Macatangay

On Sunday 22nd March it is World Water Day, and this year’s theme is ‘water and climate change’. To honour the event, this week we are publishing five blog posts exploring different sides of the multifaceted relationship between water and climate change. Each post highlights research at the Centre that touches on these, some of the most urgent problems facing humanity today. Today’s post considers how water can provide renewable sources of energy as we transition away from fossil fuels. 

There are intricate links between water, electricity, and climate change. In the context of climate mitigation, there are incentives for hydropower development to provide renewable energy. By 2050 worldwide, the share of renewables in electricity generation is expected to be 50%, and the share of hydroelectric power in renewables generation, one-fourth (EIA 2020). Impoundment facilities are large hydropower systems that use a dam to store river water in a reservoir. When water is released from the reservoir it flows through a turbine, activating a generator to produce electricity. Pumped hydro systems store the energy from other power sources for later use, by pumping water uphill from a reservoir at a lower elevation to a second reservoir at a higher elevation. This acts like a battery, allowing for the provision of renewable energy to be managed to match times of higher and lower demand.

Hydropower provision must adapt to a changing climate and the associated alterations to river discharge and recession of glaciers. Depending on the incidence, duration, or magnitude of climate change effects, the availability of water for hydroelectric power, especially in vulnerable areas, countries, or regions, could be at risk. Aufhammer et al (2017) suggest that climate change will also change the intensity and frequency of peak electricity demand. These climate impacts must be considered in planning the locations of energy generation, storage and transmission capacity investments.

The power of water can be a source of renewable energy

Hydropower dam building can also play a part in facilitating climate change adaptation, though ironically it can generate GHG emissions through release of methane in certain circumstances. Climate change could affect the supply of or demand for freshwater though an increase in temperatures, the incidence of drought, or the use of irrigation. Hydropower dams can be used to regulate the allocation of water.

Hydropower development is not without environmental and social impacts, which must be carefully considered. The addition of reservoir capacity is potentially in conflict with the protection of the natural environment. Dam infrastructure development can impact water and food security for communities living close by. It can also lead to involuntary resettlement of local communities, with legal frameworks on compulsory purchase for public purposes largely determining the extent to which the rights of those forcibly resettled are protected.

Water and Climate 2: Water Scarcity and Agriculture

Post by Andrew Allan

On Sunday 22nd March it is World Water Day, and this year’s theme is ‘water and climate change’. To honour the event, this week we are publishing five blog posts exploring different sides of the multifaceted relationship between water and climate change. Each post highlights research at the Centre that touches on these, some of the most urgent problems facing humanity today. Today’s post considers the links between climate change and water scarcity.

The availability of water at the right time and in sufficient quantity is clearly a key necessity for agriculture. The impacts of climate change potentially jeopardise both through increasing scarcity in drier areas, the effects of warming on glacial melting and changing patterns in wet seasons. This consequently affects our ability to produce enough food for a growing population.

The Irtysh-Karaganda canal in Kazakhstan

The Sustainable Development Goals make specific reference to agriculture but scarcity is one of the conditions that will make their achievement more challenging. SDG 2 demands the doubling of agricultural productivity and sustainable food production systems by 2030, but this will only be possible if water is used more efficiently than it currently is. Irrigated agriculture is the largest sectoral user of water (around 70% globally), but for a variety of reasons, it is often not used as efficiently as it could be. Pricing and infrastructure quality are clearly relevant, but legal frameworks that discourage more efficient use of water are also important. As water stress increases in the areas affected and competition for water grows, finding enough water for food production will become even more challenging. Efforts to expand irrigation networks in Africa are ongoing in order to counteract the vulnerability of rainfed agriculture to scarcity.

Terraced fields in Bhutan

In terms of timing, agriculture that relies on glaciers as its water source is increasingly having to deal with earlier melting (and thus sowing) and the potential for water resources to run out before the end of the agricultural cycle. In some areas, farmers may in fact enjoy the benefits of increased meltwater as glaciers melt more rapidly, but this will not last. Farmers in some areas are already seeking to mitigate their potential losses by choosing to cultivate crops such as sugar cane that are less susceptible to variation in water availability.

From a management perspective, irrigators have developed their own approaches to apportioning the burden of scarcity equitably – the warabandi system in Pakistan, for example, or in the context of participatory irrigation management. These tend to ignore groundwater use however, as it is generally so difficult to monitor and because legal entitlements may not restrict overuse. Best practice in water resource management demands that ground and surface waters are managed conjunctively but this demands a level of administrative capability and data that is seldom available. It also requires that irrigators consider their water needs in the context of the entire hydrological system rather than just their own command area. The political reality increasingly is that they are likely to be only one among a number of other water users in a system, all of whom must suffer the impacts of scarcity.

Water and Climate 1: Flooding

Post written by Andrew Allan, Chris Spray and Cathy Smith

On Sunday 22nd March it is World Water Day, and this year’s theme is ‘water and climate change’. To honour the event, this week we are publishing five blog posts exploring different sides of the multifaceted relationship between water and climate change. Each post highlights research at the Centre that touches on these, some of the most urgent problems facing humanity today. Today’s post considers the links between climate change and flood risk. 

In many parts of the world, including the UK, scientists predict a greater frequency of extreme rainfall events as part of the effects of climate change. An overall rise in flood events has been observed in recent years, with the effects disproportionately falling on the poor. As this winter has shown us, these are not distant risks: we are already struggling to cope with more extreme rainfall events and flooding. In coastal, and especially deltaic areas, the impact of sea level rise compounds this problem. It increases the likelihood of storm surges breaching coastal defences, and creates additional problems for farmers whose livelihoods are destroyed by salt water inundation of their fields.

The natural environment plays an important role in affecting flood risk by regulating drainage and the flow of water. The way that humans manage the environment can affect flood risk through a number of mechanisms. Deforestation for example, can increase local flooding and sediment build-up, and the broader processes of urbanisation that are being seen around the world lead to increased risk. More impermeable surfaces like roads and pavements impede drainage and the proximity of more dense human settlements makes the potential human impact of flood events all the more damaging. These risks can be mitigated to some extent by mapping those areas that are most susceptible to flooding, allowing planners to ensure that homes, for instance, are not constructed in floodplains. Ensuring that construction does not take place in areas of high flood risk is difficult however: very often such locations are desirable for homeowners or for agriculture. Critically, the maps of flood risk areas must be updated regularly to take account not only of recent construction on floodplains, but also to reflect the impact of climate change.

Re-meandering the Eddleston Water

In the past, our approach to protecting ourselves from floods has often entailed construction of physical flood defences. As has been seen around the world however, we cannot rely on these as our only form of defence, and this will become even less true as the impact of climate change continues to rise. They can be bolstered through adaptation methods such as natural flood management techniques that can help tackle floods at both the source (uplands), and along watercourses themselves by slowing or storing water. The Centre has been working on implementing these techniques in the Eddleston Water Project through tree planting, the use of sacrificial land and re-meandering. Stakeholder engagement is a crucial part of these efforts.

Finally, legal responses to all of these challenges have begun to appear, both in the context of disaster risk management approaches and through broader connection to water resource management (e.g. in the EU Floods Directive). Ensuring that legal and institutional frameworks are suitably robust and adaptable will be a key challenge in the coming years.

Rivers for the Future

Post written by Professor Chris Spray

Chris with Professor A. Biju Kumar, Head of the Dept. of Aquatic Biology and Fisheries, University of Kerala, India

One might wonder what the similarities are between Kerala and the Scottish Borders, and so quite why in February I found myself addressing an International Conference on Rivers for the Future in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram. This is not an area of India that we in the UNESCO Centre have worked in previously; our focus having been further north on the Ramganga, the Mahanadi and the Ganges/Brahmaputra, though our late colleague,  Mike Bonnell’s work on forest hydrology in the Western Gatts (the hills from which 41 of 44 of Kerala’s rivers flow) was just across the state border in Tamil Nadu. The connection is a shared interest in river restoration and stakeholder engagement; our own work being centered on the Tweed (a UNESCO HELP Basin) in cooperation with the participative catchment NGO Tweed Forum https://tweedforum.org/

The 3-day conference was organised by my hosts the University of Kerala – in association with the Centre for Innovation in Science and Social Action; the environmental campaigning organisation Ozhukanam Puzhakal; and WWF-India’s Kerala office. I was invited there by the Dean of the Aquatic Biology & Fisheries Department, Professor Biju Kumar as part of the University’s ‘Interaction with Eminent Scholars Scheme’ that enables them to bring folk across to interact with their academic and wider communities. As a result, I not only gave the Keynote presentation on River Restoration at the main conference, but also did another presentation in the conference as part of a wider workshop with external organisations on Stakeholder engagement; and a third to postgraduates and staff of the Environmental Sciences Department on the Role of an Environmental Protection Agency. I also spent time with staff and students in these two Departments and the Geology department, as well as meeting with the University Vice-Chancellor, Professor V.P. Mahadevan Pillai.

The Thattekkad bird reserve in Kerala

Compared to my (limited) experiences of working elsewhere in India, the three university departments at Kerala, along with the relevant State government research institutes and WWF-India have a (relative) wealth of data and information on their river systems and are keen and willing to share this and work with others on river restoration. Whilst their upper catchments have been heavily impacted by forest clearance and other land use changes, and their channels constrained by dams, irrigation and bankside developments, Kerala’s rivers themselves are less daunting than say the Ramganga in scale, more closed in size to the Tweed, but the challenges across Indian rivers are similar – water quality, dams, sand-mining, over abstraction, pollution, climate change, etc. – and both the bio-physical and socio-economic/cultural issues are familiar. Similarities with the Tweed revolve around the need for an overarching policy framework to address river restoration that links the degraded state of river ecosystems with the socio-economic livelihoods of the river communities that depend on it. In this respect, I was able to explore similarities in the potential for placing this debate within the frame of ecosystem services and work the UNESCO Centre have done with Tweed Forum on the Scottish Land Use Strategy  (https://tweedforum.org/our-work/projects/land-use-strategy-pilot-scottish-borders/  and on restoring the Eddleston Water catchment (https://tweedforum.org/our-work/projects/the-eddleston-water-project/ ). The key similarity that links Tweed and Kerala is probably the challenge of trying to align national policy directions on the one hand with, on the other hand local community needs and desires – and then developing the governance structures and resources to support implementation.

Of course, there are also major physical and cultural differences between Kerala and Tweed, notably the temperature (both 32 degrees in February, but C in Kerala and F in Tweed!) and the food – Kerala’s fish curries were awesome!

Pond Heron at the Thattekkad bird reserve in Kerala