If we want to solve climate change, water governance is our blueprint

water dam.jpg

(Avi Richards, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Elizabeth Taylor, Founder and CEO, WaterLoom


The phrase “fail to prepare or prepare to fail” comes to mind as we enter an era in which governments and communities must band together to mitigate climate change. Part of what makes our next steps so uncertain is knowing we must work together in ways that we have – so far – failed to do. We either stall, or offer up “too little, too late” strategies.

These strategies include cap-and-trade economic incentive programmes, like the Kyoto Protocol and other international treaties. Insightful leaders have drawn attention to the issue, but lukewarm political will means that they are only able to defer greenhouse gas emissions-reduction targets in the future. A global crisis demands global commitment. How can we work together to face a universal threat? What of the complex challenges that demand unified monitoring and responses?

 

One principal impediment is the lack of coherent technical infrastructure.

Currently, our arsenal for facilitating collective action is understocked. Our policies are unable to invoke tide-turning change because they lack a cohesive infrastructure. In the absence of satisfactory tools to make them happen, our policies and pledges become feelgood initiatives rather than reaching full effectiveness. Our clumsy half-attempts continue to bear questionable legacies in places like the city of Flint, Michigan, where residents have been poisoned by decaying infrastructure and siloed water management.1 Or in Sudan, where local agriculture policy is undermined by too-often changing management.

What tools might lead us to act collectively against climate change? It’s easy to focus on the enormous scale of global cooperation needed, or the up-front investments it will take to mitigate the crisis. But as the writer EL Doctorowreminded us, we can’t be intimidated by the process: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night,” he said. “You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

We don’t have to possess all the answers as we set out to save our communities. We don’t have to know exactly what we will meet along the way. At a minimum, we must only understand how to use our headlights to see the first few feet ahead of us.

So what is the first step on our path?

It is the substance that underpins our industry, health and survival. It remains a central source of conflict around the world, yet it also creates partnerships. Our first step is water.

Water challenges us with issues of scarcity, quality and distribution. It may seem to be a local issue, but combined with local tensions and a globalized economy, water governance is set to become one of our greatest tests of diplomatic finesse and technological synergy. If we can properly align local and global water governance and management, we can prepare the tools, the organizational blueprint and the political momentum needed to solve climate change.

An infographic outlining the basics of the UN's Sustainable Development Goal 6..

The basics of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6.
Image: United Nations

Water governance: a picture of cooperation

Why is global water governance the ideal case study in preparing for climate change?

Firstly, water governance and management necessitates the cooperation of several water ecosystem stakeholders, including public utility companies, local governments and private companies. To get an idea of the number of stakeholders worldwide, consider the fact that globally there are 300 transboundary aquifers shared by over 2 billion people. (The term “transboundary” refers to water sources shared by two or more countries.) Fabio Farinosi, a scientific officer at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, points out the likelihood that interactions among water stakeholders will only increase in the coming years, from 74.9% to 95%. “This does not mean that each case will result in a conflict,” he says. “It depends on how well prepared … the countries are to cooperate.”

Secondly, streamlined water dispersal and usage remains convoluted due to the number of differing information components. In some countries or regions, there is little exchange of information. Various water stakeholders possess different agendas; too often they have little common ground on which to collaborate. Partnerships surrounding shared water sources exist around the world; however, the quality and availability of data remains a key issue – and sometimes an impediment – in these partnerships.

Thirdly, when countries or stakeholders exchange data, they conduct a form of diplomacy. Data is the best tool for laying a track towards streamlining efforts. Data exchanges are largely voluntary between governments or public entities. Understandably, no administration is under obligation to share its own sovereign data. This does create consequences, however, surrounding water data management – and thus extends to information management encompassing climate change.

Why is data quality and availability central to water governance and climate change mitigation?

Leveraging data for the common good is not a modern idea; long ago, data became a principal unifier among the global community. Though the United Nations may be the first initiative to spring to mind, the oldest international organization is the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), estab- lished in 1865. The ITU standardized the exchange of data, paving the way in how we coordinate satellite orbits, the radio spectrum and telecommunication infrastructure. Though created more than 150 years ago, the ITU provides the framework for how live our 21st century lives.

Buttressed by the legacy of the ITU, other organizations set up the system of international cooperation and infrastructure surrounding water. The World Meteorological Organization, for example, facilitates the establishment of networks that measure meteorological, hydrological and geophysical observations. The Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace, launched in 2015, aims at strengthening the global framework to prevent and resolve water-related conflicts. Our next task, as we stand on the shoulders of their work and the that of many others, is to create the global technical and organizational infrastructure for water management, involving all stakeholders in the process.

Syncing how multiple stakeholders measure and manage water is a lesson in how to combat global warming.

Synchronizing water data helps us plan future solutions..
Image: Unsplash

Sync or swim

The process of cohesive water measurement, collection and communication informs us regarding the development of the organizational and technical tools we need to prepare for climate change. Syncing how multiple stakeholders measure and manage water across borders prepares us to work collectively to combat global warming. The synchronization process includes data and information exchange, as well as creating an organizational layout of stakeholders.

Data in itself is not the end game. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, is often quoted as having said: “Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.” The quality and accessibility of data in the arenas of water and climate change is the enabler in creating tangible recommendations for local communities and global organizations.

Two immediate steps we can take

Here are two direct, achievable measures to improve water management.

Standardize data: Only in March 2018 did the UN officially release and encourage its member states to standardize water data measurements. Though several countries use WaterML2, this information exchange standard remains only a recommendation. We need to advocate for all countries to adopt their internal water data standards to WaterML2. By standardizing, we gain insight and are better enabled to plan future actions.

Integrate digital infrastructure: Many modern challenges can now be met with modern solutions. Fusing our digital familiarity with water management solutions is one such possibility. For example, huge swaths of the African population now have access to a mobile phone, but fewer possess access to a safe water source. Our infrastructure can be designed for climate change, especially as it now has the resources of lower-cost technologies.

New technologies could tackle climate change by integrating water systems with other areas. Steam Energy Labs, for example, works on grid-interactive, consumption-tracking water heating thermostats, which heat water when renewable energy is available, turning residential water heaters into utility-scale energy storage. Integrating this technology alone could cut carbon emissions by 3%.

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