2021 World Water Week: 3 Key Action Takeaways to Build Resilience Faster

By Soomin Park 24 September, 2021

CWR's Park shares 3 key actions steps to build resilience faster from the most important World Water Week ever

Common thread across the sessions is that time is running out to build water resilience & that means we must go from words to action - so what should we do now?
Start by dealing with the deep uncertainty of climate & water risks by taking a more bottom-up approach; then apply reiterative stress tests to pick the most robust path forward
To scale up the solutions faster, remember to get started now instead of waiting for a magical method/tool; break out of your silos & push for collaboration at all levels

In the last week of August, World Water Week was held for the 26th time – and they say it was the most important one ever. Under the theme “Building Resilience Faster”, 566 professionals from 188 countries gathered virtually to discuss how water solutions can help us respond to the challenge of climate change. All 418 sessions are available for free – over 13,000+ attendees have signed up to participate this year. You can still view the sessions – click here to find out how … OR you can read our key takeaways from the week.

common thread across the sessions: time is running out to build water resilience

There was a broad range of topics, thus a lot to unpack, starting with the climate crisis and including food security, health, biodiversity, impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and water scarcity. But although varied in topics, there was a common thread across the sessions – that time is running out to build water resilience. The sense of “less talking and more doing” was also prevalent – Henrika Thomasson, director of World Water Week, opened the conference by saying, Now, we must go from words to action.

The conference’s focus on solutions that break us from silos was also clear, with many multi-stakeholder collaborations and pilots’ tests showcased. But given the urgency, we need to do this faster. Don’t know how? We have summarised the advice of the experts that spoke during the week into 3 key action points below:

1. We need to look at predictions differently – bottom-up & reiterative + holistic

Predicting is often considered a crucial part of building resilience. However, the intensity and scale of the latest extreme events are simply too shocking – not just to us but also to many top climate scientists. No one predicted the records to be broken this much so soon. One of the speakers, Green Climate Fund Deputy Director Dr Ania Grobicki summed it up: “We all have to learn very fast about climate impacts coming upon us even more rapidly than scientists have predicted“. In short, we are playing catch up.

Accelerating risks throw off traditional prediction models which use the past to predict future impacts…so we keep falling short

The problem with accelerating risks is that it throws off traditional prediction models which use the past to predict future impacts. Since policymakers use these to plan resilience, we keep falling short and are not prepared. As John Matthews, the executive director of Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA), lamented, Climate models are not good with water cycles. And they are especially not good with managing and building infrastructure“.

So can reliable predictions be produced in times of deep uncertainty? This was addressed in the aptly titled session Certain Uncertainty: Next Generation Water Planning for Deep Uncertainty where six water resource management adaptation experts sat down to discuss how to effectively address climate risks and other uncertainties in water management, along with flash talks showcasing three practical case studies.

Matthews opened the session by urging policymakers to make decisions differently because Deep uncertainty is this idea that we don’t even know what the alternative futures are. We can’t choose between them and say which one is more or less likely to be happening … We need to be more open-minded“.

A bottom-up approach involves technical analysts & stakeholders first to identify the system’s vulnerability

The speakers suggested taking bottom-up approaches to build water resilience that involve users, stakeholders, and technical analysts earlier. Decision scaling (an example of a bottom-up approach showcased in the session) takes stakeholder consultation as a first step to identify the system’s vulnerability and define performance metrics and thresholds.

Next is to apply reiterative climate stress tests

Next is to apply reiterative climate stress tests; these results can help decision-makers pick the most robust path forward with multiple solutions instead of one to deal with multiple climate threats ahead, which vary in magnitude. In this way, Matthews explained, we could “anticipate things that haven’t happened before that we have no record of that we actually need to use our imagination for.

This approach helps find not just robust but also cost-effective solutions

This approach has helped many project managers find not just robust but also cost-effective solutions. For example, Marc Tkach, Director of Infrastructure and Integrated Program Management at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, explained how he used the bottom-up approach when choosing between different solutions for the water resource rehabilitation project in Zambia and commented I liked this framework because it considers both the severity, other risks – what would happen if we took no action, the quality of data available and then produces choices that were understandable to all stakeholders. In this case, the choices allowed us to understand the cost to make the system more robust – and thereby reduces the impact on the city. It was quick and low-cost.

 Singapore uses this iterative application of climate stress testing

Indeed, this iterative application of climate stress testing is applied by Singapore, a country at the forefront of managing coastal threats – see what they are doing to deal with deep uncertainty of sea level rise or check out Singapore’s resilience playbook. Better still, see what the CEO of Singapore’s National Water Agency, Peter Joohee Ng and water guru Professor Asit Biswas have to say on water adaptation.

Water is a cross-cutting challenge, so all solutions must be holistic

Finally, keep water in mind but look beyond the water sector – as water is a cross-cutting challenge, solutions surfaced in other sectors must be holistic so that we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot. Matthews gave an example in California, which is now building five new gas plants to supplement failing hydropower due to the lack of water but has reversed the progress on building a carbon-neutral electric grid by 2045. So while these new carbon-emitting plants solve the power problem, they will likely exacerbate already bad water conditions in the state.

So basically, with mounting climate risks, there is no time to waste – always think water and start looking at predictions differently – through a bottom-up, reiterative, and holistic lens.

2. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of progress or good – so that we can scale up the solutions faster

Nature-based solutions (NBS) are emerging as the centre of building resilience for the climate crisis. In this year’s World Water Week, various conversations over the bankability of natural capital highlighted how the private sector could fill the massive funding gap for NBS faster.

Valuing water risk won’t be easy but can be done – we just need to get past the fixation on a one-size-fits-all method/tool

Valuing the true cost of natural capital is clearly the first step and many speakers mentioned the challenge due to the lack of standardised methodology for the perfect valuation system in the session titled Reimagining Natural Capital in a Changing Climate. Indeed, valuing water risk is not easy but it can be done – at CWR we have been working on building consensus toward water risk valuation for a decade. We just need to get past the fixation on a one-size-fits-all method/tool.

This sentiment was echoed in the session – we need to acknowledge that there will be no perfect way to evaluate the natural capital, experts say. Oliver Withers, the biodiversity lead of Credit Suisse, put it this way: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of progress or good. He expanded: Sometimes we want this perfect valuation system – when tech companies value depreciation of software, it’s not perfect, and it’s based on a lot of assumptions. We need to be comfortable taking that approach“.

So instead of waiting for a magical solution, it’s better just to get started now – especially because these solutions take time to mature. Lis Mullin Bernhardt, Program officer at UNEP’s Global Adaptation Network, urged, “Long term sustainable solutions for ecosystems-based adaptation can’t happen overnight – these need to be projected over a dozen years“.

We need more subsidies to incentivise positive change instead of harmful activities to the nature

Another critical gap mentioned in the session is subsidies. As Withers said, “US$700 bn per year goes into harmful subsidies… How do we repurpose some of those subsidies so that we are incentivising some of the change you want to see?“. Diverting capital in this way will fuel the climate-nature-development synergies and “de-risk the opportunities so that we can get a risk-adjusted return for everyone to de-risk the opportunities in investing to natural capital“, added Withers.

Add nature-based solutions to your green finance staples – they can be scaled up as showcased in multiple sessions

So, are there nature-based solutions that can be scaled up? The answer is yes – many successful pilot projects all over the world supported by great innovation hubs and global initiatives were showcased in multiple sessions during World Water Week. Here are three sessions we found interesting: Best Practices in Innovative Water Financing in Asia-Pacific, “Building resilient water-energy efficient agriculture through regional innovation hubs“, and Mobilising private sector investments for water security. Check them out – they are still available for you to watch here.

So do add NBS to your green finance staples but remember, for NBS addressing water risks to be successful, they must be tailored as water is a locational risk. Don’t just take our word … Withers also cautioned: “context-specific solutions are just absolutely vital“.

3. Break out of your silos and collaborate to fix agriculture & food security

Food security and agriculture was a hot topic in this year of World Water Week, with over 33 sessions directly discussed the issues related to it.

Dr John Cherry, the 2020 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate who spoke at the closing plenary, summed it up: “people think that the impending crisis humanity is facing is climate change… but the one that is going to hit us the soonest is water and that’s going to hit us on food“. This is because we feel the impacts of climate change through water and since agricultural irrigation accounts for 70% of water use, it is already impacted by a variety of water risks.

We must push for collaboration at all levels – regional and transboundary e.g. Central Asia

To make our food systems less vulnerable to climate change, the speakers said we must push for collaboration at all levels – regional and transboundary. Central Asia, a region highly dependent on agriculture, was highlighted as an example that urgently needs cooperation in many sessions. Regarding water use in agriculture and food trade of the region, Ioana Dobrescu, Managing Director of Water Footprint Implementation, commented that “We’ve seen a lot of interdependencies among the countries. She added,to maintain food and energy security, the region must take action as a whole, instead of country by country“.

Taking action as a whole means we must include every country, even if it involves geopoltiical changes

Taking action as a whole means collaborations must include every country – even if it involves geopolitical changes e.g., working with Afghanistan. One of the speakers Marton Krasznai, Scientific Director of the Center for Central Asia Research of Corvinus University of Budapest, strongly called for transboundary cooperation, urging Water resources management is a matter of survival that must involve geopolitical changes. Central Asia will have to find a way to involve Afghanistan in closing the gap between investment needed“. See impacts on the Amu Darya, a key river in Afghanistan here.

Agri-solutions are available – such as regenerative agriculture, a sustainable agricultural practice that maintain and restore water, soil quality and biodiversity, but they all require more collaboration among local stakeholders, farmers, and companies. Thus, We must get out of our silos, not just in a conference like this, but in actual work we do, as Ertharin Cousin, Co-founder of Food Systems for the Future, Ambassador of UN Food System Summit urged.

Also, tune in to the upcoming UN Climate Conference – COP26 in Glasgow this November.

Take Action Now!

We have no time to waste, and Junior Rapporteur of World Water Week 2021 Chipango Kamboyi wrapped the conference with a strong statement: Tomorrow needs us to act now. The future needs us to act yesterday because we’re running out of time“.

In Hong Kong, impacts today are already tracking the worst-case scenario and if we do not fast track decarbonisation or step-up adaptation – Hong Kong could be submerged in my lifetime. So armed with 3 key action steps, charge forward to build resilience faster. Deal with the deep uncertainty of climate risks, and stop waiting for a perfect solution. And if you don’t know anything about climate change, it doesn’t matter; break out of your silos and find partners to collaborate with. Start seriously decarbonising or adapting today! We must all build resilience faster.

List of conferences mentioned

Opening Plenary
Reimagining Natural Capital in a Changing Climate
Best Practices in Innovative Water Financing in Asia-Pacific
Mobilising private sector investments for water security
Certain Uncertainty: Next Generation Water Planning for Deep Uncertainty
Building resilient water-energy efficient agriculture through regional innovation hubs
Central Asia Water security & prosperity: elements for informed cooperation
Closing Plenary

Further Reading

  • 3 Ways To Deal With The Deep Uncertainty Of Sea Level Rise – SLR uncertainty is here to stay but it can be minimised as discussed at SIWW 2021. CWR’s Ronald Leung & Dawn McGregor share what the climate & planning experts advised
  • Bankable Nature Solutions: A Case Study –Is there a way to stop land subsidence, create climate resilience & raise farmers’ incomes? WWF’s Thomas Gomersall & Jean-Marc Champagne say the integrated rice & shrimp model does exactly that
  • Water Wars: What Policymakers Can Do – Water conflicts within countries are increasingly prevalent with industrial and even transboundary implications. What can policymakers do? We sat down with World Bank’s Scott Moore to find out
  • The Adaptation Principles: 6 Ways to Build Resilience to Climate Change – Adaptation cannot be an afterthought to development as climate change will impact the macroeconomic situation. World Bank’s Dr Stephane Hallegatte, Dr Jun Rentschler & Dr Julie Rozenberg share 6 principles
  • 2017 World Water Week: Key Takeaways – The theme for World Water Week 2017 was ‘Water and Waste: Reduce & Reuse’ and perhaps unsurprisingly textiles was a key focus area along with circularity. China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor shares both water and textile takeaways from Stockholm
  • 2016 World Water Week: Key Takeaways – Business, risk assessment & linkages with SDG 6 were key issues at World Water Week 2016, fitting given the theme “Water for Sustainable Growth”. China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor on our three key takeaways from Stockholm
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  • Not Just a Drop in the Ocean – Global water guru Professor Asit Biswas & Singapore PUB’s CEO Peter Joohee Ng share how the country is setting the example on climate change & water mgmt by formulating long-term plans despite only accounting for 0.1% of global GHG emissions
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  • Hong Kong Is Tracking Worst-Case Scenario Impacts – 8 Reasons To Act Now – With this summer of rising climate risks, don’t get caught out. CWR’s Chien Tat Low & Debra Tan run through 8 reasons why Hong Kong must act now to get on top of advancing climate threats – from hot weather, strong winds to flash floods – be prepared!
  • Designing Resilience – 2 Architectural Students’ Take on Coastal Threats – Shocked by HK’s coastal threat, HKU’s Fergal Tse & Oscar Wong became CWR’s interns to re-design Victoria Harbour. We sit down with them to understand what local youths think about climate change and & their projects with CWR changed their perspective
Soomin Park
Author: Soomin Park
Soomin was born in South Korea and lived in Shanghai before she pursued studies in environmental management at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. During her transition from a pristine Jeju island to a populous city, Shanghai, she witnessed the important role of the business and finance sector in tackling the global environmental crisis. To understand their applications of sustainability, Soomin was involved in the development of sustainability-driven strategies in different industries such as investment, FMCG, property development and solar energy. At CWR, Soomin aspires to improve water and natural resources’ commercial usage through closing the knowledge gap of corporates and investors in making climate action. During her free time, she produces comics and other forms of creative media to induce social awareness and feelings of connection among the millennial generation to combat climate challenges.
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