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Land and Water Management in the OECD

Natural Buffers Against Climate Change

June 6, 2013 | by ANTONIA SOHNS

Dutch coast: dykes, canals, dams, bridges, and locks hold back the North Sea © USGS EROS Data Center

Investing in natural resilience is key for communities to grow in concert with their environment. A look at how the Netherlands and Poland adapt to climate change.

As the impacts of climate change become manifest, governments around the world are beginning to plan for changes in order to ensure they will be able to meet their respective population’s growing demand for energy, food and water. Some governments remain stalwart that climate mitigation is the most important path in addressing climate change, and thus invest in carbon sequestration, carbon capture and other emission reduction technologies. While these investments are critical to alleviating climate change’s impact on the planet’s ecosystems and biodiversity, it is also essential that governments prepare communities for climate change through adaptation measures.

The Netherlands has been a leader in climate adaptation efforts for decades, and is now at the forefront of climate adaptation policy and implementation. In January 2012, the government passed the Delta Act, which will ensure the nation that all levels of government will collaborate with public organizations and the private sector to protect communities from flooding and provide a secure freshwater supply. Furthermore, the national adaptation strategy will enable all levels of government to participate in the integrated planning approach, bolstering resiliency.

The Netherlands is committing nearly EUR 1 billion to climate adaptation annually, allowing the government to weigh costs and benefits of adaptation schemes, opting for the most cost-effective solution that also accounts for the country’s growing population and changing economic value of national assets.

Global user networks contribute to flood forecasts in the Netherlands

The government, businesses and local groups have been working to enhance natural climate buffers by increasing sediment and peat formation, heightening dikes and mounds, and investing in natural resilience. Through the implementation of such natural buffers, communities can grow in concert with their environment, as it adapts to the changing climate.

The Dutch research institute Deltares, for examples, is achieving increased community resilience through improved data collection and management, enabling a global network of users to contribute to a system that ensembles flood forecasts. This active user network emboldens flood forecasting, thereby protecting communities along river basins. In coastal regions, Deltares is using sand dunes to purify water, and in doing so, protecting groundwater supplies from salt-water intrusion.

Inherently, these natural defenses from climate change plan for the needs of future generations which prioritizes inter-generational equity. Such inclusivity and an integrated planning approach reflect the success of the Dutch government’s management performance. The Bertelsmann Foundation’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) rank the Netherlands 11th place among 31 OECD countries with regards to the governments’ ability to develop strategic policy solution. The country, therefore, scores above average in the assessment of its ability to steer agencies and implement policies smoothly. In particular, the Netherlands’ strong history of self-reflection and monitoring capacity is likely to assist in its efforts to account for climate change’s impacts and defend its coasts, low lying areas, and vulnerable populations.

In Poland, over 244.000 people will be affected by increased sea levels through climate change

The Netherlands is not the only country to be affected by global warming. In the Fourth Assessment Report, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that Poland, for example, will experience intensification of coastal erosion, flooding and frequency and severity of storms, too. As a result, by 2005 estimates, over 2,400 km2 of coastal area and over 244,000 people would be affected by increased sea level, due to flooding and erosion. These damages would be costly on infrastructure, the health of individuals and communities and also compromise precious land and water due to factors such as salt-water intrusion.

Poland’s approach to climate adaptation, however, has been markedly different from the Netherlands’, as Poland’s climate adaptation is still being developed. The government’s adaptation strategy will assess climate change’s impacts on the economy, such as agricultural losses due to drought or water deficit; biodiversity loss and vulnerability to invasive species; health impacts due to new vectors; and reduced tourism and recreation. The adaptation strategy is currently under development and should be completed by the end of 2013. The medium-term development strategy should be adopted by 2020 and the long-term strategy by 2030.

Additionally, Poland’s climate adaptation policy will investigate infrastructure’s resiliency to change in climate, such as perturbed water cycles, which may exacerbate flooding, thereby requiring more robust flood risk management plans. The adaptation policy will develop indicators that determine how infrastructure will be affected.

In recent years, Poland has been improving markedly its effectiveness in developing strategic policy solutions and is working to increase the government’s strategic capacity, as the Bertelsmann Foundation’s SGI project points out. The Polish government’s ambition to bolster government capacity and institutional learning reflects its desire to adapt to the European Union and international norms. Such improvements will be vital to the country’s resiliency in the face of uncertainty brought on by climate change.

However, the Polish government has thus far failed to base reforms on a comprehensive and regular monitoring of institutional arrangements. While the Polish government’s ability to reform may be weak, its domestic adaptability and international policy coordination are high. This is reflected in Poland’s ambitious climate adaptation strategies that are well underway.

Using nature to mitigate risks through climate change is effective

Land and water management will need to be addressed in an integrated manner, especially when considering populations living in coastal areas and river basins. As the Netherlands climate adaptation strategy documents, using nature to mitigate risks due to climate change, is an effective and important approach for governments to consider.

Other soft strategies include raising awareness, promoting conservation and efficient spatial planning. These soft strategies and natural buffers allow for nature to be spatially integrated with human intervention or hard infrastructure, decreasing overall costs of intervention.

The first step towards sound climate adaptation and national resiliency requires governments to elevate climate change policy in their nation’s priorities. Once adaptation and integrated land and water management are recognized as exigent needs for sustainable prosperity and inter-generational equity, well-conceived incentive policies and market mechanisms can change how land and water is managed. This can ensure that all stakeholders contribute to sustainable management of the precious land and water resources.

Antonia Sohns is a Water and Energy Analyst at the World Bank and co-author of “Sustainable Fisheries and Seas: Preventing Ecological Collapse,” in State of the World 2013 of the Worldwatch Institute. She writes this article in her personal capacity.

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