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Hottest year on record will make 2016 the year of water

Written by Helen Parker

Last year was the hottest ever recorded, beating the previous record set in 2014. This year will likely be another record breaker – we are about to live through the three consecutive hottest years since records began. Climate change is here, now.

The impact of this will shape this year’s development agenda, especially in terms of floods and droughts. The World Economic Forum meeting in Davos this week ranked water crises as the third greatest global risk. El Niño, climate change and poorly planned development will continue to cause devastating floods, severe droughts and greater seasonal uncertainty.

Rich and poor countries can’t cool this hottest year down, but they can pull together to manage the risks from increasingly unpredictable weather.

2015 - a record breaking year

Last year saw a host of extreme weather events, widely attributed to the effects of El Niño. Warmer waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean altered the world’s climate, causing major storms and floods, failed rains and droughts (sometimes both in the same regions, across different seasons) and knock-on social, environmental and economic effects.

This is due to continue into this year, as the current El Niño appears to be stronger than the previous record breaker in 1998. Climate change magnifies its effects, and could drive more frequent and more intense future events.

Extreme weather affects us all

In the UK, we had a warm, wet winter. December 2015 was the wettest month since Met Office records began and the warmest December ever. Major storms caused damage to about 16,000 properties. Accounting firm KPMG estimates the total economic impact will exceed GBP £5bn. But this massive sum doesn’t reflect the human toll: the people who lost their homes, treasured possessions and businesses.

The UK is just one example of extreme weather happening around the world. The USA also experienced major winter storms, causing losses of up to US $4bn.  This followed a summer of moderate to extreme drought across nearly a quarter of US states, leading to the most devastating wildfire season on record. According to reinsurer Munich Re, weather related crises and natural disasters worldwide led to USD $27bn in insurance payouts last year.

In developing countries, extreme weather can have serious implications for livelihoods and food security. A recent drought in Central America has left 2.3 million people in need of food assistance. Failed and delayed rains have caused harvests to fail and livestock deaths in the Horn of Africa. 15 million people are now desperately in need of food aid in Ethiopia. South Africa, Malawi, Zambia, Somalia, Iran and Papua New Guinea are all experiencing drought, with major impacts on crops and smallholder farmers.

And when the rains fall, they are extreme. Heavy storms and flooding displaced 160,000 people in South America in December.

Extreme is the new normal

Floods and droughts are negative development catalysts. Floods destroy crops, livestock, homes and transport links. Water shortages cause competition and conflict. Both drive food and livelihood insecurity, triggering malnutrition and setting back development progress. Drought can also drive migration. The global development community is churning into gear to respond, with billions pledged for food aid and disaster recovery. Yet even rich countries are struggling with ‘the new weather era’, where 1 in 1000 year events appear increasingly commonplace.

Water shortages are also driven by excessive and competing demands on supply, not just failed rains. Inequality in water access means that the poorest are the worst affected. Badly planned infrastructure, poorly managed storage and land conversion also exacerbate flooding.

2016 must be a year of water action. We need an urgent reassessment of water planning and management to reduce the impact of extreme weather. The water sector must be at the centre of development policy to better manage supply and demand.

We can’t stop the physical threat of climate change tomorrow, but we can act now to change the institutional, political and economic systems which manage its risk and impacts. Let’s make 2016 a year of action on water, not a year of reaction to famine and flooding.