Opinion: Is Water Sector’s ‘Uncomfortable Knowledge’ Missing at COP28?

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A year ago, in the final declaration from COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, the global climate community finally started to address the fact that climate change impacts society primarily through the water sector.

Work by water researchers, including in the IPCC and the UN’s World Water Development Report 2020, has shown that changes in global water cycles are the bearers of much of climate change’s bad news. As the planet warms – due mostly to the energy sector – we are already witnessing the effects of too much or too little water at the wrong place and time.

Water is life, but unfortunately, the global water community has been slow to provide its own unique response to climate change. They have chosen instead to play second fiddle to fossil fuel mitigation efforts, and to adapt to open-ended consequences when those measures fail to keep global temperature rise below the levels of absolute disaster. This is reflected in global multilateral accords such as the Paris Agreement, which have stressed reducing emissions, a task assigned largely to the energy sector, while the role of the water sector in dealing with both emissions and climate change impacts has occupied a much smaller space.

Few things illustrate this as clearly as the UN (it seems hastily) organising an international water conference in March 2023 in response to the rising prominence of water issues. This was only the second ever UN water conference, held 46 years after the first one in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 1977. Between the two conferences, water had not been discussed as a subject in itself. Instead, in 1992, we had the ambitious Rio Conference on Environment and Development, then in 2000 the Millennium Development Goals and their successors, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in 2015, whose ambitious targets are supposed to be met by 2030. Water was reduced to just two of the SDGs – Number 6 (clean water and sanitation) and Number 14 (life below water) – when, in fact, water affects all 17 of them.

The presence of civil society is vital

The March 2023 UN Water Conference itself was divided into official meetings inside the UN that were high on rhetoric but in which member states made few political commitments. In contrast, much more substantive meetings that pushed for more effective results were held outside the official UN sessions by academics and activists. The UN action agenda on water, the most concrete outcome of the water conference, was primarily shaped by non-state actors, with 57% of the action points being from non-governmental organisations.

Between the first and long-delayed second water conference, and the half-century jumble of international initiatives in the interim, a few characteristics stand out that still define (or shackle) today’s efforts by water sector experts.

First, the ‘water problem’ was almost exclusively seen as the need to provide safe drinking water and sanitation (SDG6). This invisibilised the multifaceted role of water which is relevant in just about every economic, social and cultural fabric of society. Although other water-related concerns such as floods, droughts, pollution and water’s critical role in climate change began to seep in eventually, drinking water and sanitation (mostly in the Global South) still dominate the framing through which water is discussed at the international level.

Second, most attention has focused on freshwater in rivers and lakes (and their transboundary aspects) – but these water bodies represent only a small portion of the total freshwater available globally. Water in soil moisture and groundwater are the most ubiquitous, while that in the atmosphere, evaporated from the oceans and land, is the ultimate source of all freshwater. Forests, wildlife and much of our economic activity (especially dryland subsistence farming) are tied to the availability and predictability of freshwater from these sources, but our overall understanding of it is limited, even as climate change is affecting each element of the cycle in most unpredictable ways.

Third, economic framings and private sector market approaches have been – and continue to be – given primacy as tools to address water problems, ignoring or downplaying values other than profit and the role of voluntary civic voices in water governance. Complex ‘wicked problems’ such as climate change or the water crisis demand ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ that challenges business-as-usual approaches.

In the case of water, it is civic movements that generate this uncomfortable knowledge by challenging mistakes by both governments and market players. Unfortunately, resolutions coming out of international gatherings such as COPs and water or energy conferences have largely called for public-private partnerships and not the more constructively engaged public-private-civic partnerships that produce uncomfortable knowledge for workable ‘clumsy solutions’.

Public-private partnerships cannot manage public goods

Water problems – such as pollution, extreme floods and droughts, allocation conflicts, or failures to meet basic needs – in fact are classic case studies of market failure, and to expect the market to self-correct would be naïve. On the contrary, public-private partnerships have often resulted in critical public concerns being swamped under private interests.

Global water meetings, which in the 1980s and 1990s saw social and environmental activists robustly bringing to the fore the concerns of the poor and marginalised, are now dominated by private companies and consultancies. The meetings are often out of reach for Southern NGOs because of registration and other costs, and even better-equipped Northern NGOs are finding it not worth their time and resources to attend. When I have questioned organisers about this decline in civic participation, I have been told that government (public) funding is drying up, and that they have to rely on big companies for sponsorship. With limited participation of civic groups, these conferences frequently result in decisions in favour of private interests, often big multinationals, and against that of the general public at the grassroots level.

Water is a private good in only limited contexts – think of bottled or tanker-supplied water, mostly a case of the market stepping in when public utilities have failed – where profit and efficiency have a role to play. In most cases, water for domestic, urban or agricultural use has to be managed as a public good, regulated by state or municipal powers and provided as a basic right to those sections of society that cannot afford market-determined prices.

Civilised and sustainable human society has to go even further, and treat water not just as private or public, but also as a common pool good, taking into account perspectives whose voices are not present in today’s decision making: the natural environment and future generations. Given this, the case for including activist voices – who speak for these stakeholders – is clear, if balanced and sustainable public policy on water is to be achieved.

Low expectations from COP28 for the water sector

So, what can we expect of COP28? Its two main aims are to assure the materialisastion of long-pending climate finance for the non-industrialised Global South, including for loss and damage; and to assess global progress on dealing with climate change through the Global Stocktake, including of national commitments. Given the negative economic impacts of the conflict in Ukraine and Gaza, there is ample reason to suspect we will not see much progress on finance. The multilateral development banks that should be coming up with creative solutions on this front have not done so, and seem more concerned about how to position themselves to become managers of such funds when they eventually materialise.

On climate action stocktaking, we can be assured of a major propaganda binge from all countries about their small achievements on the climate front, even as the Industrial North gives more green lights to coal and petroleum to save their beleaguered economies. Given the dominance of corporate and fossil fuel interests at COP28, critical voices (especially from civic groups) that have previously offered honest assessments rather than painting pretty pictures will be ignored or sidelined. Nepal is a case in point: while the Nepal government’s climate policies are excellent, their implementation is dismal, which is seeing this predominantly hydropower-fed country getting increasingly locked into fossil fuels.

On COP28’s implications for the water sector, one can safely say that neither the COP28 presidency nor the global water community have done sufficient homework, nor challenged business-as-usual institutions, to expect any significant outcome beyond pathetically obvious platitudes. If any creative initiative does emerge, it will be a pleasant surprise.

Source: Sience The Wire (Dipak Gyawali)