Image of cyclone Yaas (May 2021) hitting coastal Bangladesh. Photo credit: Lutfor Rahman

27 September 2021

Climate shocks, adaptation and water security: how research can support action

Dr Anna Murgatroyd, University of Oxford

In November, the UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). The summit has four key goals:

  • To secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach;
  • To adapt to protect communities and natural habitats affected by climate change;
  • To mobilise finance required to secure net zero; and
  • To work together to deliver.

While all four goals are necessary for ensuring water security for all in the long run, goal two is arguably the most pressing for the water community to work towards. REACH is taking the vital steps to help vulnerable communities in Africa and Asia achieve this goal, by leading research that can support action.

Climate shocks and water security

Climate shocks, such as floods and droughts, are having devastating effects on water security around the world. In southwestern Bangladesh, cyclones Sidr (2007) and Amphan (2020) caused prolonged flooding, economic losses, damage to crops and embankment failure. In East Africa, extreme flooding in 2020 affected over 2.8 million people. Meanwhile, in 2021 drought in the Northern half of Kenya is causing widespread food insecurity, putting 2.1 million people at risk of starvation.

As discussed in our recent Water Security for Climate Resilience Report, our research reveals that climate impacts on water security will likely worsen as the climate changes, calling for more actions to address existing vulnerabilities and build climate resilience of water systems.

Climate resilient adaptation

Choosing the right adaptation action for a water system requires careful planning and analysis. When reviewing content for the report, I learned that adaptation can take many forms and is most successful when tailored to specific geographical, social and economic contexts. This is because climate-related impacts on water security can be experienced unequally, varying as a result of local climate, water user behaviour, and access to water provisions.

Unsurprisingly, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for achieving climate resilience. The examples described below demonstrate just how varied climate adaptation actions can be.

Updated infrastructure operations to protect against climate risks

In a changing climate, the water infrastructure, such as tubewells, pipes or dams, and their associated operational rules risk becoming out-dated.

In northwest Kenya, for example, sustained periods of high rainfall caused reservoir levels in the Turkwel Gorge Dam to rise above historically observed levels in November 2020. This created a significant threat of flooding to downstream communities, which required actions to be taken to reduce the risk of the dam over-flowing. Climate information on short-term forecasts and knowledge about the increased likelihood of precipitation extremes could be used to inform better operational guidelines for the dam, and therefore address risks associated with the changing climate.

Many different hazards impact water security in the Turkwel Basin, Kenya. Climate change is likely to exacerbate these hazards.

In the Awash Basin, Ethiopia, updated reservoir release rules can help to mitigate water quality issues in rivers during periods of dry weather. Yimer and Jin show that better informed timing and volume of lake water discharges throughout the year can help to manage the ongoing threat to irrigation and water supply. By coinciding releases with high flow periods in the wet season, it is possible to manage water quality for downstream users.

Maintenance of water infrastructure to keep water flowing

Regular maintenance of water infrastructure can improve reliability and reduce damage during climate shocks. This is essential to secure income, and protect lives and livelihoods.

Borgomeo et al. find that rapidly deteriorating infrastructure in coastal Bangladesh can lock communities into a water-poverty trap, making it more difficult for them to escape poverty. Meanwhile, in Ethiopia’s upper Awash Basin, infrastructure leakage has been shown to contribute to water shortages. Better maintenance of the existing water supply system and replacement of leaky pipes will help to build resilience to future climate shocks.

Importantly, to ensure that water infrastructure and services are sustainable, climate resilient and can truly benefit the most vulnerable, it is essential to invest in and strengthen institutions as well as information systems. New rural water service delivery models like FundiFix in Kenya and SafePani in Bangladesh offer ways to reduce social inequalities by redistributing risks and responsibilities among national and local actors.

In Kenya’s Kitui county, Fundifix is ensuring that broken rural handpumps and piped schemes are repaired within 3 days. As many counties in Kenya are currently experiencing drought, this is critical to ensuring communities can continue to access water.
In Kenya’s Kitui county, Fundifix is ensuring that broken rural handpumps and piped schemes are repaired within 3 days. As many counties in Kenya are currently experiencing drought, this is critical to ensuring communities can continue to access water. Credit: Cliff Nyaga

Sustainable water use

Sustainable use of groundwater sources can improve the resilience of rural agricultural communities to periods of low rainfall. For example, in the north-western highlands of Ethiopia, sustainable small-scale groundwater-fed irrigation allows farmers to cultivate horticultural crops throughout the year without having to stop farming during drier months. Introduction of sustainable management practices can have other wide-ranging benefits, including improved welfare of smallholders, increased yield of crops, enhanced water availability for livestock, and reduced sedimentation in rivers and lakes.

In urban areas, population and irrigation growth is expected to aggravate the impact of droughts in many regions, as is the case in the Turkwel basin. By analysing CMIP5 climate model projections and water demand scenarios, Hirpa et al. show that development planning, changes in irrigation use, and economic policy can help to manage competing climate and anthropogenic stressors in the future.

What next? Less talk, more action!

For the first time, COP26 summit will host a ‘Water & Climate Pavilion’ designed to explore the different ways in which water is enabling climate action at all levels. The pavilion will showcase climate adaptation needs and mitigation opportunities in the water and sanitation sector, and promote solutions designed to help countries successfully reach their climate ambitions whilst ensuring water security for those most vulnerable.

It’s great that water is being showcased at COP26. But without action, this gesture alone will not improve water security in a changing climate. Through their climate work, REACH researchers have developed clear evidence of how climate resilience can be, and already has been, built into water systems. The research reveals that investment in the resilience of water resources, services and systems can help to avert, minimise and address the loss and damage from climate shocks happening today.

Contrary to popular narrative, the Water Security for Climate Resilience Report has shown that it is not enough to provide water services – they must also be climate resilient.

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Kelly Ann Naylor, Associate Director, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Section, Programme Division, UNICEF

'Our partnership with REACH recognises science has a critical role in designing and delivering effective policy and improving practice on the ground.'

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