Published on The Water Blog

Time to adapt to changing climate: what does it mean for water?

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As COP24 in Poland reaches its mid-point, it is becoming distressingly obvious that reaching the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Centigrade will be extremely challenging.  Recognizing that millions of people across the world are already facing the severe consequences of more extreme weather events, the World Bank Group’s newly announced plan on climate financing for 2021-2025 includes a significant boost for adaptation.


Climate change impacts water resources first and foremost.   Its impacts are channeled through the hydrological cycle and propelled by water through the economy, society, and the environment. Water connects sectors – from energy and forests to agriculture and urban development and has a critical role in both climate mitigation and adaptation. 

As the world becomes hotter, wetter, and drier due to climate change, water security has become a global priority.  As many as 4 billion people already experience water stress at some point in the year.  In 2017, natural disasters—most of them weather related, affected almost 100 million people and cost an estimated $335 billion dollars. Water scarcity, exacerbated by climate change, could cost some regions up to 6% of their GDP, spur migration, and spark conflict.


The front line of climate adaptation faces the new reality of dealing with too much or too little water, requiring new and more effective ways of managing this precious resource. Poor or absent water management policies will exacerbate the effects of climate change on water, while sound water management can neutralize many of the water-related impacts of climate change. 

What does this mean for our work related to both water resources and water services? How can we help bring new tools and practices to contribute to the broader adaptation agenda?

Most importantly, we should expand our view beyond traditional “integrated water resources management” and consider the whole hydrological cycle: weather, watersheds, and water.  This means reaching out and contributing to larger agendas including disaster risk management, sustainable landscapes, resilient cities, and climate smart agriculture. Water is the great connector across these agendas—in many ways water is to adaptation what energy is to mitigation.  We need to formulate water smart policies, build strong water resource management agencies, develop river basin plans, and invest in resilient water infrastructure. Water management is fundamental to climate adaptation by ensuring efficient and flexible water allocations, closing the water supply-demand gap, and ensuring environmental sustainability.

Weather, flood, and droughts drive water resources management and disaster risk management. We need to work across sectors to ensure our clients receive the best possible climate services. Healthy watersheds link weather and water resources and are at the heart of sustainable landscapes. For cities to be resilient, they also need to be water sensitive.


We should put more emphasis on water in agriculture, both for food security and resource management reasons.  Agriculture accounts for 80-90% of our consumptive water use, and much of it is used inefficiently. In the same way irrigation was key to the Green Revolution in the mid/late 20th century, it will also be the pivot point for climate-smart agriculture and dealing with water scarcity. We need a second revolution that improves the performance of the very same irrigation systems that were constructed during the Green Revolution. This requires not only the modernization of infrastructure, but also reformed institutions and new operational concepts to provide more flexible and efficient irrigation services. Our great challenge is finding a way to untie the Gordian knot of institutional reform in the irrigation sector.

Finally, we need to safeguard the water and sanitation systems that are the foundation of public health improvements and urban development—the motors of prosperity.  This means building a portfolio of water supply sources, including surface and groundwater, reuse, desalination; protecting source water quality; and managing demand through pricing and conservation. None of this will happen in many countries until the Achilles Heel of the WSS is addressed—improving the performance of water utilities.

With risk comes opportunity.  We have a chance to refocus on long-standing problems with the new urgency of climate adaptation.  As the Bank’s new Adaptation and Resilience Strategy implores: Do More, Do Better, and Do New. Let’s Go!

Facebook Live on Water & Climate featuring Greg Browder -- Watch the Replay Below!


Greg Browder

Global Lead, Water Security and Integrated Resource Management, World Bank Water Global Practice

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