Freshwater loss and climate change

Anna Triponel

December 9, 2022
Our key takeaway: Climate change and freshwater loss are closely linked topics. Mitigating one issue can increase stressors on the other, but the good news is that there is a lot of existing infrastructure for both GHG reduction and water conservation that can be drawn on and drawn together. The key points to make this happen are: awareness of the interlinkages between the issues, especially on the part of companies and policy-makers; mutually beneficial systems that both mitigate climate change while preserving freshwater and the ecosystems that rely on it; and collaboration and communication between different stakeholders working on these issues to reach an aligned strategy. 

The Stockholm International Water Institute, partnering with the Stockholm Resilience Centre, has released Unpacking Freshwater's Role in Climate Change Mitigation (December 2022), a paper outlining the crucial role that freshwater plays in helping to mitigate climate change:

  • Climate mitigation measures both depend on—and impact—freshwater reserves: The report notes that “the success of most mitigation measures relies substantially on freshwater availability and quality, as well as sustainable water management.” This includes, for example renewable energy hydropower, bioenergy, and thermal energy generation from solar, geothermal, and nuclear power. However, freshwater “is a finite resource already over-exploited in many places, and climate change is increasing the pressure on water resources even further.” As one example, “[t]he production of bioenergy is of particular importance as questions around quantity, location, crop species, and production technique all have potential large impacts on water cycling and availability, and land use overall.” As a result, careful planning must be undertaken to ensure that we don’t deplete global water resources in the name of reducing greenhouse has emissions; this is particularly relevant for the renewable energy sector, which often has a very water-intensive value chain.
  • Effective water management can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create other benefits for people and planet: The reports states that “[c]limate mitigation planning and action should include the substantial emission reduction potential in drinking water and sanitation services, and through the management and protection of freshwater resources.” As drinking water and sanitation can increase GHG emissions, companies should seek to recover the energy used in these services. Likewise, companies, scientists and policymakers should be working together to “accurately account for and reduce GHG emissions from polluted freshwater systems,” which are often underestimated due to gaps in data and tracking. Water management schemes can not only benefit the climate, but also provide life-sustaining benefits for people and ecosystems as well. Many natural water bodies and wetlands act as effective carbon sinks, and should be preserved. In addition, an effective water management approach supports the human rights of individuals and communities to water and sanitation, while contributing to the rights to livelihoods and a clean, healthy and safe environment. 
  • Collaborative governance of freshwater resources needs to be strengthened: The close interlinkages between climate change mitigation and freshwater conservation indicate a clear need for entities focused on each issue to collaborate and share information with one another. They can also coordinate their efforts, for example though “coordinated approaches for land and water management, whilst also considering factors such as disaster risk reduction, biodiversity recovery, and sustainable community livelihoods.” Water and climate governance frameworks both continue to be in short supply; according to the report, the most effective governance and regulatory frameworks are those that have been developed through consultative processes and in alignment with society benefits. For this to be successful, “[b]uilding capacity to strengthen and integrate knowledge” is critical. This can involve “building upon the strong global frameworks that exist for climate action and the robust national plans that often exist for water management. Overall, it is fundamental that measures to build capacity are inclusive, paying special attention to youth, women, and vulnerable groups.”

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