“If climate change is the shark, then water is its teeth”

Vignesh Sridharan, Eunice Ramos, and Abhishek Shivakumar
Published in Sustainability
“If climate change is the shark, then water is its teeth”

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This analogy* between a sharks’ teeth and climatic change and water systems aptly fits the theme of this years’ world water day. It is through the water cycle that many of the impacts of climate change manifest. Water availability is dependent on climate, as the latter influences the water cycle. Moreover, the climate can impact the energy and agricultural systems, with most of these impacts reflected (expressed) either directly or indirectly through the inter-dependencies with the water system.

The link between the climate and energy systems enabled through the availability of water resources is of high significance in the Sub-Saharan African (SSA) context. With a strong push to materialise the large hydro potential in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, and Ethiopia, to name a few, the energy and water systems in the respective countries are making themselves more vulnerable to future climate uncertainties. With no real probabilities assigned to how an uncertain future climate may transpire, a balance needs to be struck between the risk of inaction and the risks of wrong action. This is emphasised in a report published by the World Bank. The report, analysing seven large River Basins and five major Power Pools across the African continent, highlights the need for climate resilience in the energy and water infrastructure of the SSA countries.

Water use is not just of importance or critical to hydropower production but also for cooling in conventional thermal power plants. A recent study finds that, by 2065, the African energy system will contribute to a water withdrawal of approximately 4% of the total renewable water resources (TRWR) in the continent. This share, despite seeming relatively low, must be analysed from the perspective of the nexus between water for food, energy, household and productive uses. It should also take into account the potential impact of climate change. Unlike hydropower plants, most of the thermal power infrastructure is not located in remote places and is rather near to population centres. This competition for water use creates an added complexity to future infrastructure planning.

Subsistence type agriculture is one of the main activities in the SSA countries. Crop production systems in SSA, which are predominantly rainfed, bear the direct impact of climate-induced variations in water availability. For example, the onset of rainfall has shifted by a month in some regions of Uganda with no change to the end of the rainy season, leading to a change in cropping patterns and affecting crop yields. With ambitious irrigation expansion plans, many states are rapidly building infrastructure to improve crop yields and reduce food insecurity. However, many of these plans are made independently, without considering the demand for water, and the energy requirements to pump it from the ground and surface water sources. This issue of ‘policy-making and resource planning in silos’ finds a parallel in India, where the state of Punjab has a food production policy to provide irrigation electricity subsidies for farmers. This has resulted in over-abstraction and depletion of the water table. Moreover, this over-abstraction has resulted in higher electricity demand, putting a strain on the local grid that is predominantly coal-powered and requires water for cooling purposes. It results in more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when, in parallel, there are other policies enacted to achieve the opposite. Thus a policy in one system could have unintended ripple effects on other interlinked systems. These inter-linkages are only exacerbated by both short and long-term climatic changes.

Hence, there is a need for effective and coherent policies that consider the uncertainties brought about by climate change and varying water availabilities. With countries working towards ambitious sustainable development goals (SDGs) focussing on energy (SDG7), water access (SDG6) and food supply (SDG2), building climate resilience (SDG13) into systems planning will have long-term benefits and will reduce the impact of getting locked into redundant (and costly) infrastructure.

* Coined by Paul Dickinson, the founder of the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP)

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