Climate adaptation begins with how we manage water Climate adaptation begins with how we manage water (commentary)
  • Some 70 percent of the world’s freshwater is used for agriculture, but cities and other sectors have growing demands on the same water resources. To adapt to climate change without undermining food security and farmers’ livelihoods, we will have to fundamentally rethink agricultural water usage, our food systems, and our diets.
  • A major new report from the Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA) makes this case loud and clear. The report urges us to face the fact that climate change will require ‘massive’ adaptation. It urges us to meet this challenge with urgency and resolve.
  • The GCA report paints a sobering picture of our water and food security futures. We can and must adapt more quickly and effectively. Adaptive water management is an important place to start.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author.

The world is in a slow-moving, persistent water crisis. Rapidly rising water usage, increasingly uncertain rainfall, and widespread water pollution push more of our world into water stress and intensify competition for water — a competition that tends to be lost by the poor and by our ecosystems. Meanwhile, sea level rise, floods, droughts, and storms continue attacking cities, communities, and crops.

Climate change is expected to exacerbate all of these challenges. Our changing climate means we will face more frequent and more severe extreme weather events. Higher temperatures mean thirstier crops, quenched with less predictable rains.

Some 70 percent of the world’s freshwater is used for agriculture, but cities and other sectors have growing demands on the same water resources. To adapt to climate change without undermining food security and farmers’ livelihoods, we will have to fundamentally rethink agricultural water usage, our food systems, and our diets.

A major new report from the Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA) makes this case loud and clear. The report urges us to face the fact that climate change will require ‘massive’ adaptation. It urges us to meet this challenge with urgency and resolve.

A contributor to the GCA report, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), where I am Director General, is already developing many practical solutions that can be scaled up to adapt to the immense water challenges posed by climate change.

Firstly, adaptation efforts must focus on the needs of smallholder farmers, who will be hardest hit and are least equipped to cope. They will be the front lines in the battle of adaptation. And in fact, the report calls for doubling the scale of agricultural research through the network of which we are a part, CGIAR.

Smallholders farmers (with less than 10 hectares) manage up to 80 percent of the farmland in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. They are fundamental to food security in the developing world and they are extremely vulnerable to the climate. Building the resilience of these farmers is an urgent climate adaptation priority.


Solar-powered irrigation technology, for instance, allows farmers to irrigate their crops on-demand, which provides resilience against untimely rainfall. In many places, solar pumps are replacing diesel pumps and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In India, farmer collectives are also earning additional income by selling excess energy back to the grid. This diversifies farmers’ incomes, helps ‘green’ the energy mix, and discourages the overexploitation of agricultural groundwater. This innovative model is now set to scale out across the country.

Elsewhere, pastoralists in the drylands of Ethiopia contending with increasingly intense floods have worked to build resilience through the construction of small dams. These dams can slow and capture floodwaters, then distribute it to grazing and crop lands, in turn boosting productivity.

Secondly, research must support the vital role that water plays in preserving our natural environment.

Wetlands are a prime example. They perform vital services for people and the environment. They provide air and water purification, water flow regulation, carbon sequestration, and flood and drought mitigation.

Preserving and restoring wetlands around the world is also essential for resilience. Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo was recently accredited as a Ramsar Wetland City. The city’s multipurpose wetlands provide a sustainable habitat for birds and aquatic life and are an excellent example of an integrated ‘green and grey’ (natural and man-made) flood management system — using nature to enhance ecosystem and urban resilience.

Thirdly, investing in preventing water-related hazards from turning into food supply disasters is essential.

Floods, for example, can cause huge losses to life, crops, and property. But using early warning systems can help farmers and governments prepare in advance and minimize the impacts of heavy flood seasons. Where harm cannot be avoided, flood insurance can be developed that meets the needs of small farmers.

The GCA report paints a sobering picture of our water and food security futures. We can and must adapt more quickly and effectively. Adaptive water management is an important place to start.

By: GEOFFREY YORK
Image credit: Simon Allen from Pixabay

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