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Paris Climate Agreement

What About Water?

January 25, 2016 | by ANTONIA SOHNS

Severe drought strands a fish on a parched dry lake in the western United States © trekandscout/veer

Despite its achievements, the Paris Agreement is flawed: it considers energy, but not water. Without full consideration of water resources, climate policies and energy progress will fail to protect communities and foster sustainable development.

After politicians and legislators from 195 countries have returned home from the climate talks in Paris last December, they now seek to implement plans to curb climate change. If all parties enforce their commitments, the earth will warm by an estimated 2 degrees Celsius, above preindustrial levels.

The Paris agreement is viewed as a historic achievement that will ensure more vulnerable countries such as island nations are protected from a catastrophic future while global emissions levels are ambitiously reduced. Yet, others contend that the climate talks failed to find realistic solutions, such as imposing a fee on greenhouse gas emissions, and that it lacks sufficient enforcement.

While the Paris talks highlighted the critical relationship between energy choices and climate change, it remains to be seen what impact these commitments will have on water resources.

In Paris, the presence of water groups was felt through their participation in debates and side agreements. The water organizations encouraged national climate adaptation plans to integrate water into governance frameworks. Additionally, over 300 water organizations created a Paris Pact to improve water management practices.

Despite these gains, the Paris agreement does not mention water and thus does not signal investments and technical support of water projects and assessments. Without such analysis, countries expose themselves to heightened water insecurity and undermine their ability to achieve lasting climate solutions to meet their Paris targets.

Water for all is one of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals

With the onset of climate change, the water cycle is expected to shift. This may include altered precipitation patterns and type, thus changing the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, and the degree of variability. Such uncertainty will put pressure on governments’ ability to provide adequate services for their people and meet increasing resource demand from all sectors, including municipalities, agriculture, and industry.

Just as the combat against climate change itself, ensuring water and sanitation for all is one of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which the international community agreed upon in last October.

By 2035, energy consumption is anticipated to increase by 35 percent globally, increasing water consumption by 85 percent. Annual freshwater withdrawals for energy, agriculture and municipal uses are outpacing supply and the natural recharge rate.

Already today, total freshwater use in some nations exceeds 100 percent of the renewable water resources because water is extracted from non-renewable aquifers or desalination plants. Withdrawal rates that exceed the natural replenishment rate threaten communities, ecosystems, and the long-term viability of agriculture and industry.

Israel uses 260 percent of its freshwater resources. Hungary and the Netherlands extract over 90 percent. The Bertelsmann Stiftung found that this puts these countries at the very bottom of the 34 OECD nations when it comes to meeting the UN’s SDG on water, thus failing on a vital indicator of sustainable development.

By contrast, countries like Iceland and Norway tend to extract less than 1 percent of their renewable water resources. The United States uses about 17 percent, falling in the middle range in international comparison.

One-third of the world’s aquifers are severely stressed

As rivers, lakes and other surface water resources are stretched to meet demand, there is increasing reliance on groundwater resources. Approximately half of the world’s population relies on groundwater as their potable water supply. Globally, the rate of groundwater extraction is rising by 3 percent annually.

Researchers found that water levels in 21 of the world’s 37 major aquifers declined between 2003 and 2013. Thirteen, or one-third of the total aquifers, were classified as being “highly stressed,” “extremely stressed,” or “overstressed."

California, which is experiencing a historic drought, has highly stressed aquifers with more than 60 percent of the state’s water supply using groundwater. As groundwater resources are exhausted, the water table falls, the costs of pumping increases as users search for water at greater depths.

In California, water-related electricity accounts for nearly 20 percent of the state’s total electricity consumption, and farmers are now drilling up to 2,500 feet underground in search of new water supplies.

In California’s Southern neighbor Mexico the water shortage has already been described as an issue of national security. Groundwater extraction from local aquifers provides more than 70 percent of the water needs of the Mexican population. Its use has transformed rural economies through improved crop productivity and diversification, but it is not sustainable. Overexploitation of the groundwater resources has resulted in land subsidence and widespread societal impacts.

Falling energy costs might foster unsustainable use of groundwater supplies

As countries move forward to implement renewable technologies in the wake of the Paris talks, it will be vital to consider how energy costs affect groundwater pumping costs and influence which water resources are developed.

Mexico was one of the first economies to release its plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the lead up to Paris. The country is already on a good track here with production-based CO2 emissions being below 4 tons per capita ­– the lowest level of all industrialized nations.

Mexico will seek to develop its abundant solar, wind and geothermal renewable energy supplies to continue combating climate change. The expansion of renewable energy, however, will change energy pricing regimes.

Currently, steep energy costs, power rationing, inefficiencies in the power sector, and unreliable connections to electricity in many countries have a silver lining effect of restricting groundwater pumping or prohibiting development of certain groundwater supplies. Falling energy costs might encourage the unsustainable use of fragile and nonrenewable groundwater supplies if water management policies are not enacted alongside climate and energy reform efforts.

Climate change coupled with unsustainable water management can exacerbate already complicated scenarios. It is critical that politicians and resource managers devise creative solutions to manage groundwater use. Without full consideration of groundwater resources, climate policies and energy development will fail to protect communities and will lead to adverse outcomes.

Antonia Sohns is a Water and Energy Analyst at the World Bank. She writes this article in her personal capacity.

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