Over the past two weeks, we have witnessed yet more tragic loss of life from hurricane-force winds, rain, and flooding in the eastern US. Now, people in the affected area must brace themselves for the long, difficult task of repairing damage and recovering lives interrupted by the storm. Just a month ago, as warm temperatures and dry conditions fueled wildfires from northern Canada to southern California, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver had some of the worst air quality on the planet, forcing healthy people to stay indoors.
It is clearer than ever that the climate impacts we experience – loss of lives, property damage, and risks to our health – will come mostly through too much or too little water, and we must take more ambitious actions to address these impacts.
Although much of the news we read every day is dire, the commitments to action in San Francisco at the California Global Climate Action Summit were inspiring and provide many reasons for hope. A highlight of the week for those concerned with the growing threats to our water supplies was the Water Pavilion and the hundreds of participants who shared their experiences and innovative actions for addressing the dual challenges of water security and climate resilience. Most promising, cities, water utilities, businesses, indigenous peoples, and non-governmental organizations are all working to develop natural solutions that can simultaneously address climate and water.
Ambitious national-level programs, such as the Natural Infrastructure for Water Security project in Peru, and city-level initiatives, including San Francisco’s use of green bonds and urban green infrastructure to prepare for a more climate-resilient water future, are significant actions to scale natural solutions. And importantly, seeking out and learning from traditional knowledge, can reveal new pathways for implementing natural solutions. Respecting the rights of rivers and nature for climate resilience in New Zealand/Aotearoa, and re-capturing knowledge about Peru’s traditional pre-Incan water technologies that work with natural wetlands to recharge groundwater, are just a few examples noted by speakers at the Pavilion.
The Water Pavilion also highlighted other benefits of these natural solutions – ways in which protecting forests, wetlands, and grasslands, along with more sustainable farming and ranching practices, can lead to improved health, sustain sources of cultural and spiritual well-being, and improve economic opportunities – especially for rural communities. To protect supply chains and address climate risks, companies such as General Mills are working with farmers to reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers, use cover crops and other practices to improve soil health and limit erosion, and reduce agricultural water use. Reduced nutrient runoff improves water quality for downstream users. When water is clean at its source, that reduces treatment costs for water utilities. Well-managed soils are significant carbon sinks and help mitigate climate change. And reduced pesticide use helps protect the health of farmers and farm workers.
While there is widespread acknowledgement of the potential for natural solutions to jointly address water and climate, participants also grappled with major challenges: How well do we understand these solutions, and how much information do we need before we take action?
The wealth and diversity of experience presented from around the world in the discussions suggested a strong consensus in favor of action. Let’s ignore the “myths” that can be excuses for inaction – we have enough information now to implement natural solutions, especially as no-regrets, precautionary measures while we build better information over time.
Embracing and seeking out traditional knowledge in combination with scientific data can reveal novel approaches and expands the toolbox of possible solutions. Inclusion and collaboration are two keys to effective action; collaborative “co-development” of information and knowledge, paired with inclusive decision-making, can build the trust that legitimizes information and enables buy-in from all stakeholders for decisions and action. Action will be most effective if we embrace options that deliver multiple benefits – we need to seek options that maximize the climate benefits of water actions and the water benefits of climate actions. Putting equity front and center ensures that solutions work for people, nature, water, and climate.