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Q&A: Climate Change Will Hit Water First

Hilmi Toros interviews IUCN Water Programme Head MARK SMITH

ISTANBUL, Mar 17 2009 (IPS) - Whether through drought, floods, melting of ice or a rise in sea level, water will be the first to feel the effects of climate change, says Dr. Mark Smith, who heads the water programme at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest environmental network.

Dr. Mark Smith Credit:

Dr. Mark Smith Credit:

The effect of climate change on water will be the main subject at the ministerial segment of the Fifth World Water Forum, a gathering of some 20,000 participants in Istanbul Mar. 16-22 on the future of water.

Smith, who specialises in hydrology, agriculture and forestry, advises “more robust water systems” to cope with extreme droughts and floods. Warming is likely to continue even if “our emissions of greenhouse gases stopped tomorrow,” he says. Preparedness is needed for “the new and dynamic climate, instead of the climate we’re used to.”

Author of ‘Just One Planet: Poverty, Justice and Climate Change’, Smith worked earlier for the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. He has also been advisor to the British development NGO Practical Action.

Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: What is some of the main impact of climate change on water? Mark Smith: The major impacts from climate change we hear people talking about are droughts, floods, storms, melting ice and sea-level rise. All of these have one thing in common, and that’s water. So when we think about what the effects of climate change will be and how we will cope with them, we have to think about water. Water needs to be front and centre in how we adapt to climate change.

IPS: Which regions and countries will be affected most, and how? MS: If we think about drought, we need to look at places where climate models are projecting lower rainfall. Regions of most concern are the Mediterranean, Southern Africa, Central America and Central Asia. Also large parts of Australia, where of course there has been a very serious and long- running drought.

For flooding, it is low-lying river deltas that are of most concern. These are places where a large fraction of the world’s population lives – places like Bangladesh, the Netherlands, and mega-cities like Shanghai and New York. With melting glaciers, it is the Andes, and especially the Himalayas, which feed the great rivers that feed billions of people in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. In terms of sea-level rise, it is again low-lying river deltas, but also small islands that are most vulnerable.

IPS: Can climate change be prevented? MS: There is consensus in the scientific community that some climate change is now unavoidable. So even if our emissions of greenhouse gases stopped tomorrow, the concentrations already accumulated and the heat stored by the oceans as the atmosphere warms mean that warming would continue. What we can do is reduce how much warming ultimately occurs – and that is by seriously cutting man-made emissions of CO2 (carbon dioxide), methane and other greenhouse gases until their concentrations in the atmosphere can be stabilised.

IPS: What preparedness is recommended? MS: To prepare for climate change, we need to adapt. That means we need to build, operate infrastructure and organise the way we live in ways that are appropriate for the new and dynamic climate, instead of the climate we’re used to. Because of the expected impacts of climate change on water, adaptation of the way water is managed and the infrastructure used to store and drain water and deliver water services is a high priority.

We’ll need water management and water systems that can cope with more extremes of flood and drought for example. That means ensuring that infrastructure like dams and water treatment plants can cope. It also means ensuring that river basins and the ecosystem in them are in good shape and not degraded, because nature – or the natural infrastructure or river basins – helps to buffer people against climate impacts. Nature will help us to be resilient to climate change.

IPS: What is the leeway to take action against the impact of climate change? MS: We should start to adapt to climate change now – but fortunately, and especially for water, a big part of adapting to climate change is making river basins and water systems more robust. This is important and beneficial right now, even without climate change. So we can make a start with adapting to climate change by investing in good water management that is the right thing to do anyways.

IPS: Can climate change heighten potential conflicts over water? MS: For sure, in places where water scarcity is a source of tension, less rainfall and more drying of rivers because of climate change will only add to that tension. Conflict is then possible, especially when there are other political problems present, whether in communities or between nations.

Cooperation is an important principle in water management as a way of increasing and sharing benefits from water, and increasing cooperation in river basins will help with climate change adaptation, by building capacities to cope.

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