News.Dec 07, 2023

Urban water resilience; practical examples of locally-led adaptation

Adapting to a new erratic climate has been a hot topic at COP28, with innovations and strategies being discussed across all sectors. But as an estimated 90% of climate-related impact is felt though water-related events and disasters, nowhere is it more important to focus adaptation strategies than around water. A session in the Water for Climate Pavilion looked at various examples of locally-led urban water resilience, to identify solutions that could be replicated and applied worldwide.

Jorji Frederiksen (Communications)
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Jorji Frederiksen
Communications Manager,

Professor Chrysi Laspidou from the University of Thessaly, Greece set the scene for the discussion with a stark reminder of the catastrophic flooding that hit central Greece earlier this autumn. Sixteen people lost their lives, whilst residents were without water and power for over a week. The damage to infrastructure was colossal and a full recovery is anticipated to take many years.

Such destructive weather events are only going to become more commonplace as climate processes become more unstable with an increasing global temperature. Adapting to the new normal of climate change is essential if communities are going to survive. This includes new approaches to adjust, prepare, and accommodate for the unpredictability created by a changing climate.

“Adaptation strategies bring about transformative change that will make things happen differently. And it is really becoming urgent to do this now, as the window for adaptation is closing,” Professor Laspidou explained. “We need to explore and find good practices [in urban water resilience], to identify how they happen, why they happen, and to systematically introduce a typology of these practices so they can be replicated in different settings and societies.”

Ms Ana Asti, State Secretary for Environment and Sustainability, State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil continued that by the end of century, five percent of Rio de Janeiro’s coastal cities is expected be lost to flooding from rising sea levels, affecting more than 10 million residents. Recent years have already seen 600 000 people in the region having been made homeless or displaced due to climate-related situations.

As such, water resilience has been recognized as a key priority in the state, which recently launched the Rio Blue Metropolis Project, putting water at the heart of Rio’s agenda. Over the coming decade the state will embark on a transformative journey to become a blue metropolis vastly increasing sanitation coverage from 42% to 90%, heavily investing in a water safety and security program to protect vulnerable areas from flooding, and developing multiple nature-based solutions. Examples of the latter will see the state increase the 1.4 million hectare protected forest to over 1.7 million hectares, as well restoring their mangrove forests, to stave off the predicted loss of their coastal areas.

They have also implemented a dedicated education system, training the next generation to become change-makers in their own communities. 15,000 young people from 250 communities are enrolled in the scheme, spreading the word of water resilience, and developing innovative local projects. Bio soap is such one example, a soap made from recycled cooking oil from one of the favelas, which is impregnated with micro-organisms that break down sewage in the drainage systems.

They are also closely monitoring the relationship between the blue economy and water security, aware that the two are closely dependent. The blue economy currently comprises 15% of Rio de Janeiro’s GDP, and they are implementing regulatory frameworks to allow for its continued development.

“Adaptation strategies bring about transformative change that will make things happen differently.”

Professor Chrysi Laspidou from the University of Thessaly, Greece

Dr Oriana Romano, Head of the Water Governance and Circular Economy in Cities unit at the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, reiterated the connection of the economy and water security with some stark facts. She stated that 800 million vulnerable people are exposed to sea level rise in 500 cities worldwide, with estimated reparation costs being 700 billion USD between now and 2050. Drought can potentially cost the global economy 6% GDP/yr by 2050, whereas floods have already incurred costs of more than 1 trillion USD since the 1980s.

A recent survey by the OECD, of cities and regions located next to freshwater bodies and coasts, showed that the blue economy is a key driver of urban and regional development, essential for employment and increasing a region’s GDP. Yet, climate change directly impacts blue economy activities in these regions, through sea level rise, droughts, and floods. The survey highlighted how blue economies must be developed with resilience at their core, and that they must be inclusive, sustainable, and circular.

In Fiji, where approximately 15% of the population live within one of 250 informal settlements, inclusivity is key to an approach being taken to develop water security. With residents having no land rights, nor the means to pay for basic services, sanitation is minimal at best and frequently non-existent. Though with increased sea-level rise and flooding events, the services that do exist are often deluged and the contents flood into the surrounding area. Gastrointestinal issues are widespread as residents live amongst fecal matter, which also affects children’s physical and cognitive development.

Professor Tony H F Wong and Ms Mere Naulumatua, from Revitalizing Informal Settlements and their Environments (RISE), explained how simple solutions such as pressurized sanitation tanks, developing wetlands, and installing footpaths can reduce contact between residents and raw sewage. Yet, the situation is complex as communities in the informal settlements can be distrustful of external help, whilst local governments are resistant to making changes due to land-right issues. A pilot project by RISE has seen huge success, however, which has encouraged local governments to get involved and even make changes to planning laws for informal settlements, whilst a community action group has helped alleviate residents’ concerns.

Ms Layal Abi Esber, Climate Change Coordinator at the UN-Habitat Lebanon Office, continued the discussion of informal settlements, which have exploded in Lebanon in the recent years following various conflicts in the region, notably the war in Syria. Already a water-stressed nation with a vastly under resourced water and sanitation sector, the additional pressure on water resources is causing tensions in the country. In response, UN-Habitat launched a regional project in 2021 to increase the resilience of displaced persons and host communities in Jordan & Lebanon. The project is comprised of various arms, those being: climate change mainstreamed urban planning, including an urban observatory to collect climate-related data to aid climate- and water-sensitive development decisions in informal settlements; rainwater harvesting and wastewater reuse; and finally, permaculture growing practices to reduce pesticide and chemical fertilizer use.

Panelists of the session held in the Water for Climate Pavilion at COP28
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As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, an estimated 1.2 billion people will live in an informal settlement by 2030, so developing approaches now, to ease the mechanisms by which they can managed and provided for, is of paramount importance.

Ruth Mathews, coordinator of the Action Platform for Source to Sea Management, highlighted how a system-wide, holistic approach can really bolster the effects of locally-led adaptation by creating the enabling conditions for them to be successful.

By considering freshwater, coastal regions, and the ocean as one continuum we can better appreciate how localized adaptations in one area can have impacts both downstream and upstream of that action. It’s also important to consider how local adaptation actions fit in with regional, national, and global adaptation plans, so that any tradeoffs can be addressed – and co-benefits maximized.

A key part of the source-to-sea approach is identifying and involving ALL stakeholders in developing an action plan. Inclusivity is key to this, by ensuring affected vulnerable parties are also part of the discussion, who often bring fresh perspectives and field-based solutions to the table. Whilst identifying roles and responsibilities of each stakeholder, there is a strong focus on the interconnectivity of their actions, and what each can do to better facilitate the actions of others.

Benefits of implementing the source-to-sea approach within locally-led adaptation plans include identifying impacts or problems that lie outside of the jurisdiction or awareness of a particular stakeholder. Also, the effects of the local adaptation action can be felt across a wider area of the source-to-sea system. There could also be financial savings, if actions are implemented at regional scales, as opposed to multiple times at local scales. Furthermore, if all stakeholders are involved in developing plans, there is a sense of ownership and people are more likely to adhere to changes.

Watch the session – Local Adaptation: water policies and good practices in urban areas

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