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Water and Climate Change

August 18, 2008

August 18, 2008—Water and climate change is one of the standing issues to be discussed at this year’s World Water Week, whose focus is on sanitation in response to the UN International Year of Sanitation.

Vahid Alavian, World Bank water adviser, is attending the conference and will report on progress and preliminary findings of a two-year Bank study on water and climate change.

Worldbank.org talked with Alavian about his findings to date.

What’s the objective of the study?

In the water sector, water managers inherently have to deal with variability and uncertainty, but what’s new is the increased level of uncertainty due to the changes in climate. As a result, the Bank is looking at issues such as the impact of climate change on water systems and ways to reduce vulnerability.

The study addresses three questions: What are the impacts of climate variability and change on water systems? What are adaptation strategies to reduce vulnerability of water systems? How can the Bank assist client countries in making informed decisions regarding adaptation options in their water investments?

It specifically looks at four major water-related issues: operation of existing water systems, planning and design of new water systems, delivery of water services under increased climate uncertainty, and preparedness of water policies and institutions to deal with climate change.

What have you found so far?

First, we’ve tried to synthesize the science of water and climate change to provide a solid foundation for understanding key issues. What we found through this process is that future trends in climate variability and climate-related hazards pose an increasing challenge to countries in managing water. The question is how to best cope and manage under a much riskier set of conditions.

Broadly speaking, there are two options for adapting to climate change: those that carry “no regrets” and those that are “climate justified.”

The “no regrets” actions are essentially best practice actions that should be done regardless of climate change. The “climate justified” ones are those that might be justifiable under significant changes in climate. They would need to be studied more carefully for their appropriateness in reducing vulnerability to climate change.

What, other than climate change, can affect future water availability?

Climate change is only one of many factors that will determine future patterns of water availability and use.

In some countries, other factors, such as population growth and land management, may be far more significant and critical than climate change.

For this reason, the impact of climate change on water should be put within the context of the broader development agenda.

What’s the impact of water and climate change on food production and prices?

Water availability is critical for food production, and will become even more so in the future, but it has not received the attention it needs.

We’re finding that many countries are moving forward with accelerated food production, mostly through irrigated agriculture, to take advantage of high prices, without giving serious consideration to the availability of water.

If this practice continues, water will soon become a limiting factor for food production as a basic staple for the general public in some countries. The impact of that will be felt on the poor the most.

How does climate change affect sanitation, the focus of this year’s Water Week?

Public health, which is the end point of sanitation, is affected by a change in climate. From the water standpoint, two factors play a role: global warming, and a change in moisture or water availability.

Less available water affects hygiene. On the other hand, more precipitation and increased moisture may lead to more risk of vector-borne diseases.

Our sanitation specialists are trying to better understand the links between climate change and sanitation with the broader context of health and hygiene.