Water isn’t at the center of the Paris climate talks. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and finding the money necessary to help the poorest and most affected countries respond to climate change overshadow it. But increasingly, impacts on water are how we come to realize that climate is changing. Sea level is rising and eroding shorelines. More frequent floods, droughts, and severe storms are cruel reminders that climate change is real and already here. As oceans warm, evaporation increases–a hotter atmosphere holds more water, producing more clouds, which cause more severe storms. When there is a dry period, the small amount of soil moisture evaporates more quickly into hot air, resulting in prolonged droughts. Climate change and water sustainability are intrinsically interwoven.
With climate change, rivers no longer flow to the sea; groundwater tables drop; floods and droughts become more severe; sea level rises; salinity intrudes groundwater supplies; and water for irrigated agriculture becomes doubtful.
These threats are the impetus for a number of water alliances evident in Paris. On Dec. 3, nations, businesses, civil society, and river basin organizations formed the Paris Pact on Water and Climate Change Adaptation, a loose coalition dedicated to increasing resilience to climate change. The group wants to make river basins, lakes, aquifers, and coastal deltas better able to withstand increasingly severe weather. By better managing water resources and water services, it aims to ensure that water is available for people, industry, agriculture, livestock, and biodiversity despite climate change.
But it is doubtful that any of the actions recommended by this alliance will make it into any formal agreement negotiated in Paris.
That is unfortunate. Some 700 million people still lack access to safe drinking water and an astounding 2.4 billion people–one-third of humanity–do not have adequate sanitation facilities. It is difficult for communities to adapt and become resilient in the face of such poverty. They can’t make adequate progress on those water problems without a stable climate system.
The clear linkage between water and climate demands that a bridge be forged between the Paris climate talks and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. The UN’s 17 goals are about nothing less than the entire human condition, and without a climate change agreement, it will make the goals for water and all the other goals for poverty, hunger, education, and economic growth much more difficult.
Meanwhile, there continues to be debate about a “water platform” in the climate change agreement expected to emerge from the Paris meeting. Vidal Garza Cantu, the director of Fundación Femsa, told the Guardian that “one of the things I’ve seen throughout all these years of [climate summit] talks is that even if the topic is not present [in the text], the water still creeps in.”
Integrate these programs which are so closely related. The delegates in Paris would do well to join hands with their Sustainable Development Goal partners.
Jerald Schnoor is attending the Paris meeting on assignment for Chemical & Engineering News. He is professor and co-director of the Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa, and former editor-in-chief of Environmental Science & Technology. Follow him on Twitter @JerryatCOP21.