Healthy, freshwater ecosystems for a resilient future

Boat through river

A blog by Harko Koster, Global Climate & Business Coordinator, SNV

22 March 2020 is International World Water Day, an opportunity to reflect on the importance of water for all life on earth and on what needs to be done to ensure we can live in harmony with water in a changing climate.

The theme of this year's World Water Day is 'Valuing Water'. This focus will extend beyond issues of pricing to include the environmental, social, and cultural value people place on water. This blog is about what water means to us.

Climate change and water

Our planet is in the middle of a global water crisis. Degraded ecosystems affect the quantity and quality of water available for human consumption. Today, 4 billion people face severe water scarcity or live without safe drinking water, affecting their health, education, and livelihoods.[1] Nearly 70% of freshwater ecosystems have been lost since 1900, and they are still being destroyed three times faster than forests.[2] Together with climate change, these are the two most important environmental crises the world must face in the coming decades. Climate change will most certainly aggravate water security. This water crisis is wicked and complex, as we see in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the same place can suffer in the same year from too much or too little water.[3] Unlike climate change, we can’t address the water security issue with a single UN convention that will address the quantity and often urgent access to water flow for people and nature.

The local characteristics of water challenges are the most important difference from the climate crisis. Water is inextricably linked with freshwater ecosystems, rivers and watersheds, wetlands and aquifers that dictate where and how much flows. Water use and access is influenced by a complex mixture of public and private institutions, rival and non-rival users which make it notoriously difficult to value and manage water as a resource. Water management has as well to recognise not just the agricultural, urban and industrial users, but also the human right to water and sanitation, its cultural significance, and the needs of biodiversity, all of which constitute non-economic trade-offs.

Water security

Water security can be limiting if it constrains solely on issues of water quantity and access. Healthy ecosystems are the foundation of water security and can create space for decision-makers to not only evaluate trade-offs but also create positive visions for future resilience as opposed to a narrow focus on risk reduction. It may be time to pivot and reframing the challenges around freshwater health and focus on maintaining or restoring healthy watersheds to meet diverse adaptation needs.

When disaster strikes, it often strikes through water. At the same time access to water is key to adaption and recovery from disasters. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the deep inequalities and fragilities of societies poignantly illustrated through access to handwashing facilities. Efforts to improve access to water must also be accompanied by water conservation measures and climate action. Water and climate are central to achieving global goals on sustainable development, climate change and disaster risk reduction.

A bottom-up approach

We believe that a stronger focus on bottom-up approaches will allow for better adaptive management in response to new information and changing conditions. This is particularly important as low-income countries must incorporate more flexibility into their water management to deal with the less predictable outcomes of climate change. Harnessing our expertise, we intend to mobilise the power of market systems, innovative finance and good governance to scale approaches that enable communities to access and apply the knowledge and tools they need to transform in the face of acute disasters and conflicts caused by the climate crisis.

To learn more about SNV's work

  • In Vietnam, the PAANI project is improving the capacity of local communities and authorities to properly manage river resources, as well as increase the resilience of local communities and degraded aquatic ecosystems.

  • The Vietnam Forests and Deltas project is enhancing climate change planning and action from the community to the national level.

  • The Sustainable Water Initiative in Kenya aims to improve water safety and security in the Mara River Basin in support of poverty reduction, sustainable economic growth, and conservation of the basin’s forest and rangeland ecosystems.

  • The Dutch Fund for Climate and Development (DFCD) will also target investments that have graduated from the Origination Facility in sectors related to water and sanitation infrastructure, as well as environmental protection.

[1] Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra,  A.Y., 'Four billion people facing severe water scarcity', Science Advances, vol.2, no.2, 2016.
[2] Almond, R.E.A., Grooten, M. and Petersen, T. (eds.), Living Planet Report 2020 - Bending the curve of biodiversity loss, Gland, WWF, 2020.
[3] Field, C.B., Barros, V.R., Dokken, D.J., Mach,  K.J., Mastrandrea, M.D., Bilir, T.E., Chatterjee, M., Ebi, K.L., Estrada, Y.O., Genova, R.C., Girma, B., Kissel, E.S., Levy, A.N., MacCracken, S., Mastrandrea, P.R. and White, L.L., (eds.), Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change UNFCCC, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014.