By Kim Jensen
We are feeling the devastating impact of climate change daily on a global scale, and this threat continues to grow at an unprecedented rate.
The United Kingdom experienced its wettest February on record last month, with several regions experiencing rainfall more than twice the average. At the same time, South Africa’s multi-year drought continues to worsen, already having affected food security for more than 15 million people, and scientists have reported that winter has been by far the hottest recorded in Europe - 3.4 Celsius hotter than the average from 1981-2010.
The 2019 Long-Term Climate Risk Index ranked Sri Lanka as the second most vulnerable country in the world to the effects of climate change.1 In the last year itself, over 600,000 people were affected by widespread droughts in the country. This was followed by a period of heavy flooding with the September 2019 floods affecting more than 116,000 people.
While not every weather event is solely attributable to climate change, the climate crisis has certainly exacerbated the intensity and frequency of many of these natural occurrences.
What we have seen with climate change is that it manifests itself through changes in the water cycle. On one hand, we are seeing floods, melting glaciers, rising sea levels and intense storms, affecting development of entire nations and livelihood of millions. On the other, we have seen how it is also responsible for driving the world’s water scarcity issue, depleting a resource critical not only for survival but for smooth functioning of nearly all industries and sectors.
The inextricable link between the climate and water crisis means that we cannot look at these two issues in silos. Beyond working towards reducing our overall carbon footprint to mitigate climate change, we must adopt a holistic approach that considers how water and climate as two entities play into each other – be it building our resilience to water-related disasters or tackling water scarcity aggravated by climate change.
Reducing the carbon footprint of water to mitigate climate change
Climate mitigation strategies are driven by the global movement to reduce carbon emissions, with the aim of reducing the rate of climate change. Under its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, Sri Lanka aims to achieve a 7% unconditional reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2030, and a 23% reduction conditional on international support.
One way to reduce emissions is by driving greater energy efficiency across sectors. A key area is in water itself – water processes consume large amounts of energy, from supplying drinking water, to irrigation, to industrial processes such as wastewater and chemical treatment, to heating, cooling, and air-conditioning in buildings. In fact, pumps – which underpin water movement and treatment throughout these processes – contribute to as much as 10% of the global electricity consumption. With fossil fuels being the source of most of the energy produced today, water processes are indirectly responsible for producing large amounts of greenhouse gases, consequently contributing to climate change.
Technology has been a key enabler of energy efficiency, and with the advent of the digital era, we are now equipped with capabilities to achieve considerable efficiencies in water processes. For instance, digital technology can enable pumps to be more intuitive and responsive to fluctuating demand, adjusting water flow through real-time monitoring. This in turn keeps energy use efficient and will go a long way in reducing our carbon footprint.
Managing water smartly to adapt to climate change
Given the rate and scale of the climate crisis, we cannot solely rely on climate mitigation. It is crucial that we have effective climate adaptation strategies in place to protect ourselves against the ongoing effects of climate change. This includes using water resources more efficiently, adapting building codes to extreme weather events, and building flood defences. While none is less important than the other, a key focus at the moment is the efficient use of our scarce water resources, as rising temperatures threaten the availability of this vital resource.
To ensure we are using our water efficiently, it is critical that all stakeholders – from governments to businesses to communities – incorporate water stewardship in their activities. It is only through collective action that we can ensure sustainable management of water as a shared public resource.
While conscientiousness is key to water stewardship, there is often an intention-action gap arising from either lack of awareness or ability to manage water resources. We can address these issues by leveraging technological advancements. For instance, smart technology can fill the information gap by allowing consumers to monitor their water usage in real-time, empowering them to save more and minimise their carbon footprint. A study by Singapore’s national water agency PUB found that a person could save up to five litres of water a day using smart shower devices.1
On a wider scale, an example of the role of technology in driving water savings is the use of pre-emptive and predictive maintenance in water infrastructure, which helps to prevent water losses. Countries and businesses today can leverage intelligent solutions to adjust the water flow, reducing excessive pressure and consequently wear and tear of the water pipes. Such solutions have been known to effectively mitigate the issue of water leakages in many nations.
Building nations that are water and climate resilient
There is growing recognition across the globe that nature’s protective capacities cannot be replaced by man-made infrastructure or technologies. Even as Sri Lanka looks to continue its development, it is important to temper this with investment in preserving and restoring natural landscapes to effectively fight climate change and ease the water crisis.
Landscape restoration is one of the most effective ways to drive sustainable development and build our resilience to climate change – one that serves as both an effective mitigation and adaptation strategy. Natural landscapes act as barriers to floods and run-offs caused by storms. At the same time, they help replenish natural sources of water, in turn mitigating water shortages.
This strategy has already proven to be successful in several places with a recent example being China’s implementation of sponge cities. Hundreds of cities in China have adopted the use of terraces, ponds and dykes to retain and slow down the flow of stormwater. During monsoons, these green landscapes actively absorb excess water, which can be harnessed for use during dry seasons.2
This year’s World Water Day reminds us of the interconnected nature of the climate and water crisis. While this presents a complex challenge, it also serves as an opportunity for us to address the two biggest threats we face today by adopting a holistic approach.
While the nations’ efforts are increasingly reflecting an understanding of the interdependencies of water and climate, it is important that we remember collective action will be key to managing these global issues. To create meaningful and effective change, all of us – from governments to businesses to individuals – must look at ways to drive sustainability in our daily actions.
The writer is Group Senior Vice President and Regional Managing Director of Grundfos Asia Pacific Region.