New streams of thought: Managing water and ecosystems for climate-sustainable development
This paper looks at the role of ecosystems through a focus on water management for climate-sustainable development. The author, Ecuador’s former environment minister, argues that the intensification of water use and massive expansion of water infrastructure has triggered severe, sometimes catastrophic, declines in the health and productivity of freshwater ecosystems and made human societies vulnerable to growing mismatches between water infrastructure and changing regional climates. She proposes practices, moving forward, to achieve three goals: managing for a changing rather than stationary climate, explicitly incorporating ecosystems into “infrastructure,” and recognizing the value of intact, healthy ecosystems to people. naging water and ecosystems for climate-sustainable development.
Managing water is not new to human societies. Around the world, people began moving and storing water on a large scale thousands of years ago in order to improve their lives and build great civilizations. Evidence of the modification of wetlands for rice production in eastern China dates back about 8,000 years; some dams operating today in Yemen and Turkey have been in existence for more than two millennia. In many ways, we are a water engineering species.
The development of complex, agro-industrial, energy-intensive societies globally over the last two centuries has deepened our connection to ever-more extensive water management. The intensification of water use has come with a rapid expansion of water infrastructure on a massive scale; over 40,000 large dams exist in the United States alone, most built within the last century. The rapidly developing nations of South America, Asia, and Africa are now entering their own era of rapid water infrastructure development, fueled in part by the push for low-carbon energy sources. As a result, few large rivers still flow free and unobstructed to the sea.
While hydropower and more reliable agricultural production through irrigation have been positive outcomes, there have also been two important negative results. First, freshwater ecosystems have suffered severe and in some cases catastrophic declines in productivity and health in response to human infrastructure development, disrupting connectivity and flow regimes and often causing declines in water quality and quantity.
Such unsustainable water management practices have resulted in dramatic impacts on particular ecosystems. One of the worst such ecological disasters of the 20th century, for instance, was the transformation of the Aral Sea in central Asia from a thriving fishery to a hyper-saline desert as a result of decades of unsustainable cotton irrigation.
The second result is that our societies and economies have developed a new vulnerability to growing mismatches between our water infrastructure and changing regional climates. When engineers design water infrastructure, they look at the history of a particular basin to estimate the “normal” range of water quality, quantity, and timing. In most basins, however, they have access only to a few recent years or decades of data. The basic assumption by infrastructure designers has been that the past is an effective means of understanding and preparing for the future.
However, as the earth’s climate has accelerated its rate of change in recent decades, this fundamental assumption has become increasingly unrealistic. The earth’s hydrological cycle is directly connected to shifts in climate. The Hoover dam on the Colorado River in the southwestern United States, for instance, was by far the largest storage and hydropower dam in the world at the time of its construction in the 1930s. Today, it runs a significant risk of running dry by the end of this decade as this part of North America continues to receive less precipitation. The Hoover dam has arguably had a long and useful life before gradually declining in its functionality; however, the same antiquated planning and design methods are still relied upon in developing countries to meet their energy, food, and urban water supply and sanitation needs.
While these mismatches are occurring globally, they seem to be happening at an accelerated rate in some regions. In the Himalayan foothills, for instance, climate and flow data from recent decades may not be capturing new trends in the variability of the Indian monsoon and shifts in seasonally frozen water and snow. The lack of such information in the planning and design phase of new infrastructure will result in the miscalculation of current and future dry-season river flows. Impacts from changes in freshwater availability can already be heard from subsistence farmers who report shifting from four to two reliable harvests per year. Similarly, Tibetan plateau herders have begun to note significant declines in the amount of grassland available for their livestock. New small and medium hydropower facilities in the Himalayas are “locked in” to estimated flow regimes that are already out of date at the time of completion, resulting in investment losses, inefficient energy production, and significant risks to downstream populations. Given the fast progression of climate change, traditional approaches to infrastructure design and management may ultimately impoverish both economies and ecosystems as the return on development funding diminishes or declines.
Are both of these issues - declining freshwater ecosystems, and climate-infrastructure mismatches - intractable? WWF has found that they actually share a solution. Indeed, we believe that helping economies and communities to prepare for and adapt to climate change depends on sustainable ecosystem and - especially - water resource management. In fact, WWF is already implementing such solutions with partners in many regions of the world. They include:
Focusing on flow regime rather than simply water quantity and quality. In the Pangini and Mara basins of east Africa, for instance, the adoption of environmental flows approaches is placing ecosystems at the center of water management plans -ultimately ensuring that the ecosystem functions supporting commercial and subsistence agriculture, hydropower, fisheries, and urban uses are valued accordingly.
Managing rivers and lakes at a basin scale, even when that basin crosses political boundaries. The Danube basin spans nineteen countries, several of which have been at war within the past twenty years. Moreover, the upstream portions of the Danube (central Europe) are experiencing more frequent floods, while the downstream portions (eastern Europe) appear to be having more frequent droughts. Yet institutions such as the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) help sustain a vision for the basin as a whole, even as different regions experience new eco-hydrological conditions. At the global level, the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention lays out the basic principles governing cooperation between states sharing water resources, supporting basin-wide climate change adaptation. Unfortunately, the Convention has not yet been ratified.
Managing across the whole of the hydrological cycle, including precipitation, runoff, upstream-downstream connectivity, groundwater, and surface water. The Yangtze River begins at more than 5,000 meters of elevation on the Tibetan plateau of western China and ends at a huge estuary near the mega-city of Shanghai. The last 1,500 km of the river is flanked by a vast network of lakes and wetlands, many of which were cut off from the mainstem for flood control, agriculture, and urban development. As weather in central and eastern China grows more extreme, reconnecting these wetlands to the mainstem helps restore the hydrological function of the river as a whole and provides a massive ecological flood buffer for downstream residents.
Implementing monitoring and evaluation systems that help capture environmental shifts, whether from climate change, demography, or economic changes. In Central America, the absence of monitoring capacity has left millions of people extremely vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Regionally, an estimated $30.8 billion in damages resulted from natural disasters between 1990 and 2009, and more effective monitoring would help prevent such losses.
Slowing the rate of climate change by securing a fair, ambitious, and binding global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Financial and technical adaptation assistance for vulnerable countries must also be mobilized, and water management must be an integral part of this assistance.
These practices help to achieve three goals: managing for a changing rather than stationary climate, explicitly incorporating ecosystems into “infrastructure,” and recognizing the value of intact, healthy ecosystems to people.
All of these practices are also notable for another quality they share: they place most of the burden for adapting freshwater resources on policymakers rather than on technical personnel, such as scientists and engineers. Indeed, the technical aspects for implementing these goals are largely based on existing knowledge and global standards for best practices.
If little or no new technical considerations are necessary for implementing effective climate-sustainable freshwater management, then what obstacles prevent policymakers from prioritizing resilient practices? While many issues seem involved, three gaps in understanding appear widespread enough to merit attention here:
Traditional policy approaches that divide water resources into unrelated sectors prevents holistic management. Thus, many rivers are used to sustain forest management, agriculture, fisheries, urban and factory supplies, and hydroelectric needs, but in most parts of the world separate ministries manage these uses within a single basin. Key ecosystems and protected areas probably represent another (and different) set of management priorities. In many countries, climate change adaptation itself is in a distinct ministerial silo. Often there is no obvious or effective central basin authority with an integrative and coordinating function across agencies and ministries.
In practice, climate change adaptation is largely about avoiding negative impacts that result from the synergistic interaction between shifts in climate and poor human resource management. Thus, effective adaptation means swerving away from, rather than responding to, realized crises. However, given that implementing effective policies often requires difficult financial and political decisions, simply avoiding problems is not always a persuasive or popular approach if all stakeholders do not assess the landscape of challenges in the same way. Risk-based approaches to resource management may not be appealing if climate change impacts will be “discounted” if they seem far away in space and time. High-impact but non-immediate problems are thereby left for the impetus provided by the future crisis event. In many cases, adaptation options will then be more limited.
Lastly, there may be severe limits to how we can respond to climate change impacts, and these limits will often involve painful, difficult choices for policymakers. Sea-level rise for low-lying regions is perhaps the clearest example. Wealthy nations such as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom can build massive barriers for their populations, at least in high-value regions. But nations such as Vietnam, the Maldives, or Bangladesh face arguably more severe threats while having fewer financial resources to respond. Similarly, the loss of a dependable seasonal snowpack in high-altitude regions may force mountainous nations to cultivate quite different energy and water supply options. None of these investment and population location decisions have solutions that are easy or popular to implement.
The political costs of making correct but unpopular policy decisions can be quite high. Rahm Emanuel, a well-known U.S. politician, has argued that policymakers should “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” His words applied to the current global financial crisis and the implementation of major structural reforms of the financial services industry, but they could just as easily apply to implementing climate change adaptation. By taking advantage of extreme weather events as moments of political opportunity, we may also find the consensus necessary to modify the actions and understanding of policymakers, engineers, and water managers. By effecting such changes in hearts and minds, WWF hopes to sustain vulnerable ecosystems and societies, who must ultimately live with the consequences of both good and bad infrastructure decisions.