We can’t win against water – From mitigation to resilience

Floods and storms are responsible for almost three-quarters of climate disasters. Yet, all around the world, resilience to climate shocks does not get as much attention as the “net zero” agenda.

Building resilience is becoming increasingly more important in the face of more severe and frequent environmental disasters, such as floods and landslides happening because of climate change.

However, resilience measures are under-prioritised on the global agenda and are too reliant on the public purse. Just 3% of private finance mobilized under the Paris Agreement in 2018 went towards adaptation, with over 95% going towards mitigation.

According to the Global Commission on Adaptation’s “State and Trends in Adaptation 2020” report, the private sector is failing to respond to the climate risks in their midst. In global finance, we are robbing ‘climate resilient Peter’ to pay ‘net zero Paul’. Instead, we need to learn about the mutual benefits of action on both agendas.

The impact of global warming on water is already at crisis point, but we can’t win a war against water. We need to learn how to live with it, and also with less of it, better.

Last year, more than 50 million people were affected by droughts, floods, and storms. In 2020, the rainy season across most of southern China was the longest in 20 years. This meant that severe flooding and landslides were particularly intense, with more than 2.2 million people evacuated from their homes and surroundings in July. It was a tragic event, but there are also signs of progress. In 1998, similar levels of flooding led to more than 4,000 deaths and the destruction of 7 million homes. Last year, far fewer lives were lost, in large part because of a new approach focused on environmental improvements, rather than relying solely on hard, grey engineering solutions. The restoration of close to 300,000 hectares of flood plains, alongside reforestation, has increased flood retention capacity, and also supported nature.

In England, the Environment Agency is responsible for the regulation of water, waste, and emissions from industry. We also deliver flood protection, building and maintaining defences and emergency response. These actions often require advanced technology and hard engineering. But today we are increasingly looking at nature-based solutions to achieve multiple outcomes. For instance, we are working with local authorities, businesses, and community groups to restore ecosystems and enhance nature. In 2019/2020, we created 531 hectares of blanket bog and, restored a further 2,148 hectares. We have also restored peatland ecosystems to improve the quality of water. Peatland soils are known for alleviating flooding, slowing the flow of water and for their filtering capacities.

Greta Thunberg has talked about “cathedral thinking” to convey a sense of urgency to fight the climate emergency, meaning that we must lay the first stone without knowing exactly how to construct the ceiling.

In India, the government has established six small-scale adaptation projects in diverse regions of the country. The projects range from mangrove restoration, to the use of short-duration crops that mature in 70 days to adapt to late sowing conditions. Instead of pursuing one large national project, the approach is piloting different models – designed so that they can be replicated elsewhere – and establishing new networks to share knowledge across the country.

Elsewhere, Norway’s government emphasizes that if municipalities do not choose nature-based solutions, they must explain why. These include measures such as restoration of wetlands and expanding existing streams and rivers to cope with rainfall. If more countries followed this lead and insisted on nature-based solutions by default, then the world would be a lot closer to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of integrated water-resources management by 2030.

A recent essay in The New York Times, entitled “We’re Not Ready for the Next Big Climate Disasters”, revealed that the federal government in the United States is spending about 46 billion USD per year on recovery from disasters, which is seven times the level of investment in resilience. The world cannot afford to respond like this, we need to be better prepared. But we are finally starting to see change in the investment community with initiatives like the Coalition for Climate Resilient Investment. By including physical climate risks in upfront financial decision-making, members are pressing for a shift towards greater resilience.

At state level too, there are signs of change. Recently, the climate and environment ministers of the G7 secured historic commitments to put climate, biodiversity, and the environment at the heart of worldwide COVID-19 recovery. All G7 members signed up to the global ‘30×30’ initiative to conserve or protect at least 30% of the world’s land, and at least 30% of the ocean, by 2030. This year, is the first ever ‘net zero G7’, with all countries committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest, with deep emissions reduction targets in the 2020s.

The G7 has also agreed to increase the quantity of finance for climate action, including for nature, in order to meet the annual 100 billion USD target to support developing countries.

So, there are signs of change. But, despite these historic agreements and the uphill struggle, it will be for governments to deliver them and go even further. No one would argue that 30% is enough.

If we are going to improve humanity’s quality of life in the face of worsening floods, storms, and droughts we need to embed a shift in global finance towards nature recovery, climate resilience, and net zero. We need to steam ahead with a race to zero and a race to resilience, fuelled by trillions of dollars, and engineered with nature.

The International Water Association, representing water professionals and inspiring change for a water wise world, has a crucial leadership role to play in pushing this agenda. And time is of the essence. As Simone de Beauvoir once said: “Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay.”

This blog is an extract from Emma Howard Boyd’s speech given during IWA’s Digital World Water Congress 2021. To watch the entire keynote, please click here, and watch from 10:47.

Emma Howard Boyd

Chair of the Environment Agency, England