ISTANBUL -- Don't expect the future to look much like the past, at least when it comes to the Earth's fresh water supplies. That's the message emerging from a major international meeting being held here this week.
More than 27,000 people -- including government ministers from more than 120 countries -- have gathered for the 5th World Water Forum. But in this ancient city, where the thin ribbon of the Bosporus divides Europe and Asia and massive Roman waterworks still dot the landscape, it's the Earth's shifting climate that is on delegates' minds.
Water managers have long relied on historical records of streamflow, rainfall and snowpack to help ensure that their communities have ample water for sanitation, recreation, agriculture and other uses. But climate change is altering those patterns, stretching the water cycle's extremes. In practical terms, that can mean more severe or frequent droughts or floods, or changes in the timing of flows from melting glaciers and snowpack.
"We are responsible," Loïc Fauchon, president of the World Water Council, said during opening ceremonies Monday. "Responsible for the aggressions perpetrated against water, responsible for the current climate changes which come on top of the global changes, responsible for the tensions which reduce the availability of fresh water masses so indispensable to the survival of humanity."
Fauchon told conference attendees that "at this time in the history of water, we're faced with a major challenge -- to use more water resources, but at the same time to protect and enhance the value of and even reuse these waters."
That message is not lost on the European Environment Agency, which released a report yesterday warning that Europe is "living beyond its means" when it comes to water use.
Climate change 'getting traction' with water managers
Increasing demand and prolonged periods of low rainfall and drought have helped reduce river flows, dry out wetlands, and lower lake and groundwater levels, the report says, predicting that "climate change will almost certainly exacerbate these adverse impacts in the future, with more frequent and severe droughts in Europe."
Meanwhile, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said yesterday that by 2030, about half the world's population -- 3.9 billion people -- could be living in water-stressed areas. The OECD report is careful to note that this figure doesn't take climate change into account, suggesting the actual toll could be even greater.
Climate change is a special focus of this year's forum, in what many experts said represents a significant shift of attitude for the world's water sector.
Speaking in Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago, environmental policy analyst Geoffrey Dabelko said he was surprised that climate change is "actually getting traction" with water managers at all levels, from local to international. "There is just this underlying concern now, that the future won't look like the past," said Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
That, he said, could affect not just drinking water and sanitation, but also the amount of water available for energy production.
Brian Richter, director of fresh water programs at the Nature Conservancy, attributed the water community's emerging interest in climate change to an overall change in how governments, scientists, industry and other groups talk about the issue.
"The only way I can explain it is that much of the discussion, for a long time, was on the mitigation side," he said, rather than adaptation, which now features seriously in international climate talks and, increasingly, in countries' regional planning and local governments' planning. "They know now that [climate change] is going to be a very big deal for water."
A new 'hydrologic variability' poses momentous problems
Meanwhile, a top U.N. official said this week that he believes water issues should be a major component of international climate talks in Copenhagen this December, when the world will gather to begin formulating a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.
"Water is finite and vulnerable and needs to be protected," U.N. Undersecretary-General Sha Zukang told water forum attendees in Istanbul on Monday. Echoing a major U.N. report released last week, Sha said he is concerned that climate change is shifting natural patterns of droughts, floods and snowpack accumulation and melting the world's fresh water glaciers -- all reasons water managers should be concerned (Greenwire, March 11).
First, though, international ministers gathered in Istanbul will meet later this week to discuss strategies to help the water sector confront climate change, a pervasive lack of sanitation and drinking water in many developing countries, and increasing demand for water driven by a rising demand for food and the development of water-intensive energy technologies like biofuels.
Aaron Salzberg, special coordinator for water resources at the State Department, said the United States plans to push for more discussion of climate change during the ministerial talks, scheduled for Friday and Saturday in Istanbul.
"We're seeing greater links between water and climate," he said in an interview last month. "What's emerging now is that many developing countries are extremely vulnerable to hydrologic variability" caused by climate change, like shifting precipitation patterns that are altering normal drought and flood cycles.
"In some places of the world, water falls down for a very short period of time each year," Salzberg said. "What if you get most of your water over just one to two months? How do you secure enough water for the rest of the year?"