December 30, 2012

Water Ethics for Climate Adaptation

It's unfortunate that the COP 18 meetings on climate change held in Doha, Qatar last month gave so little attention to water, much less to water ethics.  Water and climate impacts and adaptation strategies had been discussed in detail at a workshop in Mexico City in July, resulting in a very useful report.  But the much anticipated COP 18 meetings would have been an opportunity for exploring how water strategies, including the ethics underlying those strategies, could make a difference.

Statements from water experts participating in COP 18 focused on the need for more funding to implement adaptation measures that were not specified, as if everyone already knows what needs to be done.  In her presentation GWP Executive Director, Ania Grobicki noted, "We have the knowledge.  We have the tools."  What is missing is funding.  The Water and Climate Coalition issued a position paper which highlighted the need for both more funding, and a higher profile for water issues in climate discussions generally.

Maybe the water community would get more respect, and more funding too, if they broadened their message to include water ethics.  The key to successful adaptation to more erratic water regimes is not simply more infrastructure or more effective governance, though both will be necessary.  A shift in values and ethics is also needed to avoid the technology treadmill that I see happening in the Southwestern United States, where I live.  Without an ethic recognizing the rights of nature, we apply our engineering technology to transfer water from our rivers to our cities, farms, and factories, leaving the rivers dry and their ecosystems nearly dead.  Fear of climate change only enhances the incentives to remove every last drop from nature to meet the incessant human demand.

Successful adaptation to a harsh climate: a baby horned toad.
The ethics underlying the European Water Framework Directive, by contrast, recognizes the needs (and indirectly, the "rights") of rivers to flow, in order to support their dependent ecosystems, as well as future generations of dependent people. 

Adaptive water management needs to "get the ethics right" as an integral part of the adaptive process.  The ethics that got us into the water crisis are not the right ethics to get us out, particularly as climate change exacerbates the crisis.