By Prof. Mohan Munasinghe The COP21 Paris meeting of the UNFCCC highlighted water as a major resource through which some of the worst climate change impacts would be felt worldwide. In recognition of this fact, a key output of COP21 was the Paris Pact on Water and Adaptation. Water also figures prominently in the UN [...]

Sunday Times 2

Traditional water management isn’t enough

Sustainable water resources management – key to tackling climate change and driving sustainable human development in South Asia and Sri Lanka

By Prof. Mohan Munasinghe

The COP21 Paris meeting of the UNFCCC highlighted water as a major resource through which some of the worst climate change impacts would be felt worldwide. In recognition of this fact, a key output of COP21 was the Paris Pact on Water and Adaptation. Water also figures prominently in the UN 2030 Agenda universally accepted by all nations, and is recognised through the key sustainable development goal (SDG) No. 6, which is also linked to many other critical SDGs like poverty, food security and climate change.

Houses affected by the floods.

In this context, South Asia is considered one of the most vulnerable regions, and international bodies like the World Bank and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) have begun to focus on the regional risks and identify policy options and institutional responses. In Colombo next month, IWMI will host a regional event on climate change risks and water resources management in South Asia.

The risk posed by climate change hangs over the region like a dark shadow. As South Asian countries aim for middle-income prosperity and higher human development in the next 15 years, climate change will bring on increased risks of pests, diseases, water shortages and food insecurity. Impacts of extreme weather and coastal flooding/erosion will post a particular threat to low-lying regions, severely impacting countries like Maldives and Sri Lanka.

These risk factors were known for many years and predicted in the fourth and fifth assessment reports of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However, actually observed losses and damage, as well as anecdotal evidence suggest that ‘real’ climate change is happening at a rate and scale much greater than anticipated through the models. While it is hard to establish a clear statistical trend, extreme shifts of rainfall and variability of monsoon patterns are becoming the new norm across South Asia.

There is wide scientific consensus that impacts of climate change are already becoming evident. From the high Himalayan slopes of Nepal to the outer islands of Maldives, climate change has impacted on water availability, quantity and quality. This not only poses a threat to future consumption and human development, but also can reverse hard-won development progress already achieved, even fueling serious conflicts arising from water sharing and management across countries or states. Climate related disasters could cause large scale displacement of communities and lay fallow vast areas of cultivable land, creating the dire threat of food security.

Climate risks and no-regrets options for Sri Lanka
Just in the first half of 2016, Sri Lanka experienced both abnormally high temperatures and record levels of rainfall. This follows a disturbing trend of anomaly over the past decade or so, applying to observable changes in both monsoon behaviour and extreme events. Floods have ravaged the capital city, Colombo, at least five times in the last ten years. The last flooding episode, in May 2016, was the worst on record in terms of damages and losses, as many homes, small businesses and public infrastructure (including the new exits to the Outer Circular Expressway) were underwater for many days.

Damages to urban infrastructure apart, floods and drought have decimated the agricultural heartland of the country. Farmers are the first to face impacts of climate variability and increasing unpredictability of the monsoons. Across the country, farmers (especially the poor ones) face uncertain livelihood. In districts where farming is the mainstay of the community, impacts are seen through reduced incomes, malnutrition, internal rural to urban migration, and the migration of women to low-skilled jobs in the Middle East.

Sri Lanka has evolved traditional methods of adaptation to climate variability and seasonal dry periods. Small scale water storage ponds and tanks dot the landscape of the dry and intermediate zones. The density of these ‘ponds’ is highest in areas where perennial water sources are scarce, and intermittent rains are common. However, the effectiveness of these systems are declining, since the magnitude of changes in the monsoon patterns are exceeding traditional norms of weather variability.

According to Dr. Jeremy Bird, head of the International Water Management Institute: “The Sri Lankan weather has always experienced variability and traditional water management systems have adapted to accommodate late and intermittent rains. This variability is however increasing and climate change projections predict that it will become a bigger part of the water management challenges for coming generations. Analysing historic records no longer provides the same degree of predictability for the future. Rainfall in the monsoon is reducing and the number of days without rain is increasing. ”

IWMI predicts that by end of the century, the Maha or wet season crop will require 20% more water due to warming of over one degree celsius. The main climate change impacts will be felt in the north-eastern, eastern and southern dry zones and the wet, hilly areas of the country. A study of dry zone rice output by the Munasinghe Institute for Development (MIND) indicated that the yields of this staple crop could fall 10-15% due to projected climate change impacts on rainfall and temperature, within the next 30 years. Such developments will not only worsen vulnerabilities like food insecurity and dependence on grain imports, but also exacerbate inequalities and encourage migration of vulnerable small farmers out of the dry zone. The study identified key sustainable water resources management (SWARM) practices, agricultural innovation and other policy interventions, to address these challenges.

Major opportunity for Sri Lanka
Climate change adaptation has a higher priority than mitigation in Sri Lanka. Compared with the west or even South Asian neighbours such as India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka does not contribute significantly to climate change through carbon emissions. On the other hand, it has a major opportunity to adapt and reduce vulnerability through sustainable water resources management. This is clearly reflected in the country’s Intended Contributions (INDCs) presented before COP 21 in Paris. The focus is on water management by strengthening existing systems and infusing elements of equity and good governance in to the management of this increasingly scarce resource, rather than through building large dams or expensive diversions. Decentralizing water management to the provincial, district and if possible local level is even more advantageous for communities in the front-line of climate change. This would enable communities to ‘own’ their local natural resources and manage them collaboratively as was done many years ago – by resuscitating traditional water management methods in rural Sri Lanka, like the ancient “Vel Vidana” system, which has even been transplanted successfully to other countries including Japan.

The fundamental principle of no-regrets adaptation is that investments should be directed towards options that have substantial shorter term sustainable development benefits, in addition to long term climate change benefits. Policies and projects should aim for positive impacts on human development (health, nutrition, income and living standards), as well as on the bio-physical environment (forestry, water availability for nature, species, soil, etc.). The SDG, adapted to national priorities, would provide a comprehensive framework that will link the water sector with other areas within the macroeconomy, and also help to articulate activities from the central government to the local levels, respecting the principle of subsidiarity. Within the water sector, investing in rainwater harvesting, micro-irrigation, small-scale water storage, groundwater banks, modifying allocation practices and improving the transparency of allocative decision-making, and encouraging more renewable energy use in the water sector, are all win-win solutions.

There is no longer a debate about whether climate change is real or not. It is happening, and the sooner we learn to manage its impacts sustainably, especially in a crucial sector like water resources, the better the outcome for a small but highly vulnerable, middle income country like Sri Lanka.

(The writer is the Chairman of the Munasinghe Institute for Development (MIND) and Vice Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC-AR4), who shared the 2007 Nobel Prize for Peace and Distinguished Guest Professor, Peking University, China.)

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