A Water Health Insurance Plan

by Patrick McCully
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

As far as water goes, climate change changes everything. Past experience of rainfall, snowfall, runoff and streamflow is no longer a reliable guide for the future. We'll all be affected, but especially small farmers and the poor and marginalized, who have the least ability to protect themselves against the depredations of droughts, floods and food shortages.

Aquatic ecosystems will also take increasingly severe hits: river temperatures (and thus chemistry) will change, the flow patterns with which ecosystems have evolved will be wiped out, sediment flows will be altered, and exotic species will invade new niches. These impacts are similar to what happens downstream of a dam - except in this case the impacts will not be on a single stretch of river but will be felt on all rivers.

If we take rapid, intelligent action to cut our emissions, the speed and severity of these changes will, of course, be lessened. But given the amount of greenhouse gases we've already released, and the releases that we're locked into by our lifestyles, political dynamics and economic infrastructure, it is simply not conceivable that we can avoid significant chaos to the water world.

The uncertainties facing water managers are huge. One of the world's most sophisticated assessments of the impacts of climate change on a single river basin, commissioned by the Australian government for the Murray-Darling, concluded that surface water availability in 2030 would be 7% more than in 2008 - or 37% lower. Even more extreme, predictions of future run-off from the rivers that supply Phoenix, Arizona range from an 81% reduction to a 23% increase.

What then shall we do?

First, we need an emergency program to slash greenhouse gas emissions. If we do not succeed in this, even the smartest adaptation measures will ultimately prove futile. Second, everyone involved in water management needs to give up pretending that the future will be like the past. Water management under such conditions of uncertainty will mean striving to come up with solutions that are both affordable and can provide benefits in both extreme droughts and extreme floods. The suite of adaptation solutions must be based on the following principles and measures:

  • Reduce demand for water. There are numerous options for doing this, many with a well-established record of success. Measures include changing farm policies to discourage wasteful irrigation, subsidies for consumers to buy water-efficient appliances, and recycling and reuse of wastewater.
  • Harvest the rain, both in cities and on farms.
  • Shift the emphasis from concrete-based "grey" infrastructure to "green" infrastructure based upon protecting, restoring, and mimicking natural ecosystems. This includes conserving forests and wetlands that naturally sustain clean water supplies, moderate floods and recharge aquifers; restoring meanders in engineered rivers to slow down floods; removing dams and levees to improve habitats and the ability of species to migrate as the climate changes; and replicating natural water systems in cities to slow down and filter stormwater runoff (e.g., green roofs, permeable pavements, pocket parks in sidewalks, and the like).
  • Invest in flood forecasting, warning and evacuation, and flood shelters. Develop strategies to help communities recover from floods.
  • Discourage development in vulnerable floodplains.
  • Flood-proof the most vulnerable infrastructure. Tactics can include maintaining levees that protect urban areas, raising buildings and developing flood by-pass systems.
  • Invest in dam safety and management. Most countries are failing to properly maintain their ageing stock of dams. It is safe to say that none of the world's tens of thousands of dams have taken potential climate-change-induced mega-floods into account in their design.

The hydro-industrial complex is using climate change adaptation to legitimize a renewed push for big dams and canals. Yet many of these projects should be characterized as maladaptation measures - costly, expensive, inflexible and ineffective, diverting scarce resources from better solutions, and providing few benefits to local communities regardless of how the climate changes.

No matter what we do, climate change is going to produce some deadly weather. But we can do, and in many places are already doing, things that not only make our communities safer, but also our ecosystems healthier and our built and natural landscapes more beautiful. Clearly, it's the right climate for a serious rethinking of how we treat our rivers and manage our water resources. International Rivers will continue to press for these kinds of solutions in the New Year and beyond.