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World Water Day: Skewed adaptation to climate change spells trouble for water resource management

Written by Lindsey Jones

Adaptation to climate change has gained ground within the international policy arena in recent years. But confusion remains on how best to support adaptation, given the broad range of interventions that aim to facilitate it.  

While this problem applies to any interventions seeking to address adaptation, it is particularly relevant to the water sector. We know that water is the primary transmitter of climate change: whether it is greater variability in rainfall patterns, prolonged droughts, or more intense floods. Today, for example, experts will gather at ODI to discuss the role of groundwater in poverty reduction. Yet, when it comes to predicting the impacts of climate change on the water cycle and its management, particularly at a scale relevant to planning, there is far more uncertainty. This makes it hard to indentify appropriate impact-oriented adaptation interventions.

Pressured by mounting calls to ‘fast-track’ adaptation for those most vulnerable to a changing climate, policy makers must choose the right blend of interventions to support. Could a focus on highly visible, impact-driven, adaptation interventions detract from the need to tackle what really drives vulnerability and undermines capacity?

Picture the range of interventions to address adaptation spread along a spectrum. On the right hand side, we find initiatives to confront the impacts of a changing climate: often technical and costly actions that address unprecedented levels of climate risk. Examples include the erection of flood defence schemes in vulnerable areas, or increasing water storage via dam construction in areas that are likely to see more varied rainfall. Towards the left of the spectrum, we find initiatives to address the underlying factors that drive vulnerability or build resilience to pressures such as climate change. Examples include the empowerment of marginalised groups in water governance, and the strengthening of local institutions that govern access and entitlement to water resources.  

 As pressure mounts on change agents – fromgovernment aid agencies to international non-governmental organisations – to demonstrate their contribution and commitment to helping countries with a limited capacity to adapt, we increasingly run the risk of focusing too heavily on the impact end of the continuum.

Such skewed adaptation responses could mean gross negligence in the face underlying drivers of vulnerability to climate change. Indeed, a recent ODI report notes that in the context of the UNFCCC negotiations, the main focus tends to fall on highly visible, additional, and incremental activities, rather than those that bridge the gap between adaptation and development. Ultimately, the side of the spectrum associated with vulnerability – which is harder to visualise and quantify, and not exclusive to climate change – tends to be overlooked.

What’s more, impact-driven initiatives rarely address the underlying drivers of vulnerability that affect water access and entitlement in times of climate stress. This is compounded by confusion in the close relationship between adaptation and development, with consequences not only for project design, but for funding for adaptation interventions.

Take the example of Nepal. A recent study, using state of the art climate modelling, shows that mean annual precipitation levels across Nepal show no clear trend for the future, varying from –36% to +67 % by 2060; and -43% to +80 % by 2090. Similar uncertainties are shown for monsoon and winter rainfall projections. In large parts of Western and sub-Saharan Africa, widespread uncertainty over future rainfall highlights the need for interventions and policies that are ‘robust in the face of uncertainty’, rather than geared toward one (uncertain) scenario. So, how do vulnerable developing countries adapt their water resource management in the face of such uncertainty, and how do policy makers at the international level decide which interventions to support?

What’s clear is that impact-orientated interventions are vital given the range of possible scenarios. Yet, the development of impact-related initiatives depends on sound climate information and data, somewhat lacking in the case of Nepal. Given that access, entitlement, and governance of water resources are embedded in the socio-economic and institutional settings, a focus on impact-centred approaches will fall far short of ensuring effective and equitable adaptation.

Just as relevant is the need to recognise and support adaptation initiatives along the centre and left hand sides of the spectrum that address wider issues of vulnerability and adaptive capacity. Promoting effective, flexible, and efficient water management at the local level, addressing adaptation concerns through Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM), and helping farmers collect climate data and integrate into planting decisions are examples of key water-related adaptation initiatives fundamental to increasing resilience and capacity building in the face of an uncertain climate.

Moving further left along the spectrum: addressing restrictive institutional norms with regards to water access, changing any maladaptive practices and customs, and providing empowerment to those marginalised, are illustrative examples of vulnerability-oriented approaches to facilitating adaptation. Underlying drivers such as poverty and institutional capacity – not usually associated with climate change – are equally important in determining access and entitlement to water resources, though rarely supported by conventional impact-driven approaches. These are particularly relevant for nations like Nepal, where cultural institutions, norms, and social networks determine access and entitlement to water in times of stress.

Though such underlying drivers are not as visual, get little attention in the adaptation debate, and receive scant assistance through conventional climate finance mechanisms, their contribution to adaptation remains elemental. Skewed adaptation with an emphasis on funding impact-driven water related interventions will leave ‘gaps’in the landscape of adaptation, and create a shortfall in support for vulnerability-orientated initiatives the very foundation of adaptation in many parts of the developing world.