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Where water management meets climate change adaptation to boost resilience

Many developing countries are facing significant water management challenges due to growing populations and increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns coupled with rising sea levels leading to saltwater intrusion. Too much or too little rain at the wrong time can degrade or wash away soil and adversely affect farmers’ incomes and food security.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been working with partners on a number of projects to build climate resilience in the face of such challenges, and has just published four case studies (Sudan, Uruguay, Vanuatu and Lower Mekong) to highlight the benefits of marrying smart water management and practical adaptation measures.

Record-breaking floods and droughts in recent years, with cascading impacts on societies across the world, bear witness to growing climate change-induced disruptions in the water cycle. This makes both better water management, through a concept known as integrated water resources management (IWRM), and climate adaptation planning key aspects for maintaining stable and prosperous societies.

Almost all countries that have submitted National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) and  Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – at the heart of the Paris Agreement – prioritize water. This requires that IWRM carefully consider environmentally friendly adaptation to boost climate-resilience and minimize future costs. Improved synergies between IWRM and climate change adaptation can improve resilience in the face of water, climate and economic challenges and also help with access to all-important financing.

“Water is a climate connector,” says Leticia Carvalho, head of UNEP’s Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems Branch. “That is why it is so urgent to combine integrated water resources management and climate change adaptation to reduce climate impacts on the water cycle and avoid dangerous consequences for human health, the economy, and even cross-border relations.”

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report highlights the fact that small island developing states, for instance, consider adaptation the most urgent aspect of their national climate change response, with improved water management a prime opportunity to advance progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. “We need to strengthen the enabling environment needed for integration and cross-pollination between better water management and climate adaptation in general,” says Carvalho.

Boosting resilience in Comoros

Farmer in the Comoros
The UNEP project helped farmers understand how different land uses can influence climate risk.

Like many small island developing states, Comoros off the coast of East Africa, with its population of just under 1 million, is trying to adapt to a rapidly changing climate.

Participatory Integrated Watershed Management is a just-ended five-year UNEP project in Comoros – funded by the Global Environment Facility and executed by the Department of Environment and Forests – which promoted smart water management and climate change adaptation solutions. Those included promoting the selection of resilient tree species, and supporting reforestation and forestry management, as well as nurseries, hedging and agroforestry. The project has seen over 1.2 million trees (including agroforestry trees) planted against the target of 1.4 million. The development of alternative crop and livestock value chains provided added income without degrading – or while rehabilitating – ecosystems.

By developing the technical and institutional capacity of islanders to rehabilitate and sustainably manage forests and watersheds, the project strengthened the resilience of communities in Comoros to climate change.

In a joint publication in 2017, the Global Water Partnership and United Nations Children’s Fund described resilience as: “the ability of people and systems to anticipate, adapt to and recover from the negative effects of shocks and stresses (including natural disasters and climate change) in a manner that reduces vulnerability, protects livelihoods, accelerates and sustains recovery, and supports economic and social development, while preserving cultural integrity.”

Some of the project beneficiaries produced excess food which they sold, allowing them to either spend on essentials like school fees or reinvest in their farms, for example by purchasing goats. More broadly, the project helped planners, farmers and other stakeholders in the Comoros understand how different land uses can influence climate risk.

The project found that reforestation using resilient species worked best in a managed setting and that erosion was limited when land cover was maintained, leading to less downstream flooding. Ecologically sensitive rainwater retention infrastructure, such as earth ponds, stone dikes and cisterns, helped to rehabilitate watersheds and improve water use efficiency and availability.

The project succeeded in putting into practice the concepts of integrated watershed management as an ecosystems-based climate change adaptation strategy. This required a lot of awareness-raising and training, but the approach ultimately won government support, and showed real promise for the future, say those involved.

UNEP’s ecosystem-based adaptation guidelines contain the Opportunity Mapping Tool for Eco-DRR that helps countries map out where ecosystems, such as mangroves, forests, coral reefs and seagrasses, overlap with human populations vulnerable to storms, flooding and landslides, and seeks to identify where ecosystem-based approaches will have the greatest impact.


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