Are We More or Less Water Secure Post COP26?

By Debra Tan 22 November, 2021

Find out what COP26 means for water security with CWR's Tan as she reflects on frank conversations had at a high-level water security forum

COPs may come & go but grave water challenges lie ahead; actual policies & actions point to a 2.4°C temperature rise by 2100 = 2-3m of SLR by 2100 cannot be ruled out
Waterproofing our future is possible yet adaptation finance (pledged by richer countries) & actions are lagging; to succeed, water needs to be at the core of govts' policymaking
Transferring risk to the next gen is not going to work with impacts advancing; we must let go of our siloes & lead the charge on decarbonisation & adaptation - our only failure now is the failure to act

Frank conversations on water were had at a high-level water security forum on the eve of COP26 in Glasgow. Present were ministers including Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport, leaders from the water sector (public and private) as well as eminent academics from different parts of the world.

CWR was privileged to have been invited to share our views. Don’t worry if you missed this, you can access the whole one and a half day sessions on Ooska News’ excellent water news/intelligence site here. But I thought it was worth reflecting on a few threads discussed on climate change and water security now that COP26 is over.

COP26 points to a dire future for water

COPs may come and go but grave water challenges lie ahead. As Asit Biswas, the organiser of the forum highlighted, COP26 is just an event. Climate change will be with us whatever we do for the next several decades; and water – the resource most vulnerable to climate change – will be the most impacted. This brings grave challenges to managing water; a sentiment echoed time and time again by various speakers.

New pledges & targets from COP26 only deliver 2.1°C by 2100 under scenario of 1.8°C but we’re heading toward 2.4°C

Sadly, new pledges and targets from COP26 only deliver 2.1°C of warming by the end of the century with an optimistic scenario of 1.8°C. Equally important is the speed at which we reach net zero – the faster the better. On this front, 2030 targets fall short; so we are actually heading toward 2.4°C of temperature rise by 2100 according to Climate Action Tracker.

Many IPCC authors expect “the world to warm by at least 3°C by the end of the century”

But promises may not be met and hypocrisy was abound at COP26. Behind the noise and fanfare of announcing new promises and pledges, actual policies and action will deliver a dire 2.7°C. A recent Nature survey revealed that many living IPCC authors expect “the world to warm by at least 3°C by the end of the century”. A similar survey conducted by CWR of financial experts revealed consensus at 3-4°C.

This signals a dire future for water making the NatureSpringer book “Water Security Under Climate Change” launched at the high level forum even more pertinent (CWR was invited to write a chapter in this book).

COP26 has increased the chance of multi-metre sea level rise before 2100

Irreversible ice melt that locks in 10-20m of SLR can be triggered at the levels of warming we are heading to. Already at today’s warming of 1.2°C, we have locked-in 2-3m of SLR which the IPCC AR6 warned under its worst-case case scenario cannot be ruled out by 2100.

These SLR levels will be devastating for Asia – at around 3m, we estimate that 22 Singapores’worth of expensive real estate will be underwater – and that’s just from assessing 20 major cities in Asia Pacific. Given that these 20 cities generate US$5.7trn of GDP per annum and house over 200mn people, we are definitely less secure post COP26. Now more than ever, “Race to Resilience”, a catchphrase bandied around at COP, must be transformed into urgent action – literally, we must adapt or die. A sentiment echoed by the UK’s EPA.

While it is important to track emissions, it’s time to catch up on impacts we’ve already locked-in

Climate change waits for no one and the profound changes happening in our poles will drastically redraw our coastlines plus more. So while it is important to track emissions, it’s time to catch up on impacts we’ve already locked-in – aside from our coastal capital threat series, we recommend the just released State of Cryosphere 2021 report; or at least read our summary here.

Still lacking in adaptation finance & adaptation action

Another disappointment is that richer countries have still not managed to raise the US$100bn per year in adaptation financing promised to developing nations. Plus let’s not forget great efforts to shirk responsibilities with protracted arguments over the wording of “loss & damage” – heaven forbid the use of anything that sounded like compensation.

We’ve ended up with limited liability, limited responsibility & limited financing

So we’ve ended up with … limited liability, limited responsibility and limited financing – this trifecta hardly shores up hope for the billions of dollars needed to effect the carbon transition; let alone the other large pot of money needed to waterproof our homes, cities and critical infrastructure – adaptation financing is hardly discussed.

… but we really do need to start a serious adaptation conversation

Adaptation planning also lags. Perhaps this is because climate change advocates often don’t want to talk about adaptation because it sounds defeatist, preferring to focus on decarbonisation. But we really do need to start a serious adaptation conversation, especially now since we have not managed to fast track anything at Glasgow.

Water challenges are many from rising scarcity, rampant pollution to widening extremes of too much/too little water. Dependable resources such as snow and ice melt are also disappearing thanks to less snow and glacier melt.  Adequate infrastructure is also lacking – either there is none, or they are built to withstand the climate of the past. Let’s not forget that 26 out of the 36 climate impact drivers identified by the IPCC AR6 are related to water.

Yes, we can adapt! Waterproofing our future is possible …  

It was clear from the forum discussions that many water challenges can be managed – there are solutions. As for the gaps, we can invest in technological advances. A vision was laid down by Barry Greig, Vice Chair of Hydro Nation under the Scottish Government: “In the future where increase in rainfall, sea level rise, more frequent, river flooding – all of that should demand less of our time and attention because we’re prepared, and we’ve adapted. What we want is a water resilient society or water resilient world.

Some countries have not even drawn up comprehensive adaptation plans – we are still waiting for HK’s

While Scotland and Singapore seem to be heading for this level of futureproofing, others struggle to raise funding for water infrastructure or put in place water policies that do not marginalise the poor. Some countries/cities have not even drawn up comprehensive adaptation plans – we are still waiting for HK’s. Regardless, all adaptation plans will have to be revised for new impact levels – it will get expensive.

So why are Scotland and Singapore ahead? The answer is that they have put water at the core of their policymaking. This is a key ingredient in ensuring water security in a changing climate.

Water must be at the centre of policymaking – waternomics to the rescue

Water must be prioritised as THE RESOURCE and policies must be made to facilitate the implementation of tech advances and water infrastructure spending/upgrades to cope with the new climate landscape.  And because water is a cross-cutting issue, these policies will need to be comprehensive and holistic – everyone has a role to play to make a water resilient city.

Of course in developing countries, waternomic policies which wed water management strategies to economic planning can be used to ensure enough water for growth. If you are interested, do check out the chapter we wrote on Using Waternomics to Develop and Avoid Systemic Shocks to the Economy in the book launched at the forum.

Laws/ policies must be enforced/ implemented… also, the siloed nature of government departments may hamper necessary collaborations

Legislation was also recognised amongst speakers as important but not enough; laws/ policies must be enforced/ implemented. Also, the siloed nature of government departments may hamper necessary collaborations and will need addressing. Countries like China have even gone further to restructure ministries (to deliver its vision of an ecological civilization).

But there’s only so much water companies and technologies can do and while past water trends have helped us understand how to manage water so far, new waterscapes await – it may no longer rain over here where the city/reservoir/farmland lie, instead it rains over there where nothing exists to collect water.  As Cindy Wallis-Lage, who heads the water business at Black & Veatch said “we can’t answer questions like this with the past, for example, community planning – do we keep rebuilding flood-prone areas or rebuild elsewhere?”

Be brave & ditch the past … tech & policies for water need to be forward-looking

Another thread discussed at the high-level forum was the need to be brave. Policymakers and water companies must be brave and embrace rising water risks. “We must adopt new technology faster than we have historically. We cannot solve our problem when we do not adopt the technology that is out there” said Wallis-Lage.

“Old tech” also works: new hydropower has a potential of around 550GW yet only 156GW is under construction

Don’t forget that “old tech” also works: Alex Campbell of the International Hydropower Association (IHA) made a powerful case for hydropower to fast track decarbonisation. It is abundant – IHA analysis points to new hydropower potential of around 550GW yet only 156GW is under construction.

In these times of deep uncertainty we know we should prepare for the worst, but increased reliance on forecasting science has made our leaders less brave to make these bold decisions mulled Philippe Rohner, of Abic Partners.

Moreover, preparing for the worst can be very costly and could cost politicians/CEOs their jobs. As Asit Biswas remarked, a prominent minister once said to him “we know exactly what to do, but we do not know is how to do them and still get elected.”

Can we let go of our fears? Do we really want to?

So while not everyone will have the same challenges, we all have the same fears. Here, I ponder some philosophical questions raised by Rohner on human nature that needs addressing if we are to ensure water security under climate change. I paraphrase: How can we progress when we hold onto the past? Can we stomach short term pain for long term gains? Do we have the will?

It is the extremes that matter – floods & droughts do not operate in “averages”

We love certainty and cling on to it. Forecasters like to use averages because there’s less chance it could be wrong. But can we let go of using “likely” forecasts (the middle 66% of the bell curve) and use the ones at the top end of the range instead? Because when it comes down to managing water, it is the extremes that matter – floods and droughts do not operate in “averages”. Non-water people need to understand this and re-learn how to deal with water risks at both ends of widening extremes.

Returns on adapting will only manifest in the future when events manifest and assets survives unscathed

… the real return is protecting people

On short term vs. long term, can we accept that there will be no immediate financial return? Returns on adapting will only manifest in the future when events manifest and assets survives unscathed. Do we have appetite for this type of patient capital? Surely, we must because the real return is protecting people – somehow along the way we forgot this.

While decarbonisation requires global collective action, adaptation is local and can be controlled by local governments. Yet still they struggle with policies, technology, financing and forward-planning. And this is not just in developing countries, it’s happening in the US and UK – e.g. Flint and 400,000+ incidents of raw sewage discharged in UK’s rivers.

Can we let go of our silos to come together for the common good?

Where there’s a will, there’s a way to ensure water for all. So are we failing because we don’t really want to? Can we let go of our silos to come together for the common good? Right now it seems impossible – prioritizing profits over people plus toxic global politics hardly exude an “all together now” drive.

Wanted! Soul searching for our inner hero

A hard dose of honesty is what’s needed post COP26. It’s not just governments … we want net zero but do little in our lifestyles to deliver it; philanthropists want to save the world yet jet everywhere to space/COP/WEF/holiday homes. We want to stand out and lead but also want to follow the herd; we want change but resist change; we hate uncertainty but it’s in times of great uncertainty that we make our biggest breakthroughs … the list is endless.

A long hard look at our contradictions is long overdue. Like this Honest Government Ad said … it’s time to look at our failings so we can stop failing because we cannot afford to “carry out an experiment with the only planet we have”. (It’s worth watching even if you know your stuff for its novel but effective way of explaining tipping points).

Passing the buck and transferring risk to the next gen is not going to work anymore as impacts are advancing. Also, it is important to remember that while adapting will keep us alive for now, if temperatures rise past certain points, we may not be able to “tech” ourselves forward. Sadly, climate injustice which is already prevalent will widen.

Seas are virtually certain to continue to rise – our only failure now is the failure to act

We are both the hero and baddie; we just need the hero in us to surface right now. The battle on carbon must rage on we need to bring warming down to below 2°C but we also need a few good souls to step up to lead the charge on adaptation to waterproof our future. The writing is on the wall, seas are virtually certain to continue to rise – our only failure now is the failure to act.

Further Reading

  • Code Red: 8 things you need to know about water in IPCC AR6 – IPCC AR6 is a code red for water too! CWR’s Debra Tan shares 8 things you may have missed on water and urges to delay no more
  • Why Isn’t Water Top Of The Climate Agenda? – If water risks were properly valued, they would be much greater than the energy transition risks so, why isn’t water at the top of the agenda asks Eco-Business’ Sonia Sambhi who caught CWR’s Debra Tan & other water experts at SIWW 2021
  • 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
  • 2021 World Water Week: 3 Key Action Takeaways to Build Resilience Faster – 2021 World Water Week gives 3 important action takeaways for us to charge forward & build resilience faster – CWR’s Soomin Park breaks them down
  • A Conversation with SIWWs Ryan Yuen – It was a different SIWW this year due to the pandemic & a more holistic agenda with hot new topics. We sat down with SIWW’s Ryan Yuen to get the SIWW2021 scoop & see what’s next

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Debra Tan
Author: Debra Tan
Debra heads the CWR team and has steered the CWR brand from idea to a leader in the water risk conversation globally. Reports she has written for and with financial institutions analyzing the impact of water risks on the Power, Mining, Agricultural and Textiles industries have been considered groundbreaking and instrumental in understanding not just China’s but future global water challenges. One of these led the fashion industry to nominate CWR as a finalist for the Global Leadership Awards in Sustainable Apparel; another is helping to build consensus toward water risk valuation. Debra is a prolific speaker on water risk delivering keynotes, participating in panel discussions at water prize seminars, numerous investor & industry conferences as well as G2G and academic forums. Before venturing into “water”, she worked in finance, spending over a decade as a chartered accountant and investment banker specializing in M&A and strategic advisory. Debra left banking to pursue her interest in photography and also ran and organized philanthropic and luxury holidays for a small but global private members travel network She has lived and worked in Beijing, HK, KL, London, New York and Singapore and spends her spare time exploring glaciers in Asia.
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