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Five water solutions for an uncertain climate future

We propose five concepts that policymakers and planners can apply to help ensure water resilience amid climate change.

Lake Tahoe in a severe drought. Photo: NOAA / Unsplash.

Date published
24 August 2020

Climate change impacts – from droughts to floods to temperature changes – are already affecting  availability and access to clean water. Water solutions can build a more resilient future, but these solutions will vary for each country, region and watershed. Below we propose five priorities that policymakers and planners can apply to help ensure water resilience as the climate continues changing.

Infographic of five sustainable water solutions

Graphic: Sharon Mah / Soapbox .

1. Use participatory processes

Participatory processes can ensure stakeholders and policymakers share the same mental model of a watershed. This is particularly important when stakeholders approach water planning with different – and sometimes conflicting – ideas. SEI, for example, uses a process called Robust Decision Support to encourage sustainable water planning and cross-sectoral participation. This process works towards a common understanding of a watershed and water resources system, along with the potential hurdles and the strategies that might best be employed to maintain sustainability.

In Kenya and Tanzania, SEI has partnered with the USAID-funded Sustainable Water Partnership to work with stakeholders to identify policies that will keep the Mara River Basin sustainable in the future. Researchers and stakeholders worked together to build a model of the Mara basin in SEI’s Water Evaluation and Planning (WEAP) software .

Mara River Valley in Kenya

Fertile rolling countryside in Kenya with the Mara river foreground. Photo: WLDavies / Getty Images .

2. Integrate watershed and sanitation management

The vast majority of international aid for water projects is spent on infrastructure to ensure safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (known as WASH). Less considered is the watershed that supplies the water that runs through this infrastructure. An integrated planning process that considers both – WASH and watershed – is key to ensuring water is clean and safe, as well as available in the first place.

This type of integrated approach to water planning is in line with Agenda 2030 and Sustainable Development Goals – but it’s also relatively new. Through the Bolivia WATCH project, SEI is working with Bolivia’s Ministry of Environment and Water (MMAyA) and other groups to tackle the common institutional separation between WASH and watersheds. The effort will serve as a blueprint for how other regions and countries can integrate watershed management efforts and innovative sanitation interventions to ensure adequate water quality and supply for all water users in a watershed.

3. Look beyond the boundaries of current water planning

Water can’t be contained within a watershed, region, or country, nor should our thinking about water management decisions. Water planning is multi-faceted, so it’s necessary to look beyond current water planning boundaries to consider impacts on multiple scales, recognizing connectivity between regional and global decisions, between ecosystems and societal needs, and between various stakeholders. SEI’s Water Beyond Boundaries program has introduced a new way of thinking about sustainable water planning, which incorporates teleconnections, early ecosystem consideration, and multi-interest approaches.

4. Incorporate gender and social equality aspects into water models

To ensure policies help the most vulnerable and don’t exacerbate existing inequalities, water models should incorporate gender and social equality aspects. But how to do so is still an emerging area, as it adds complexity to an already complex process. SEI is testing out analytical tools for the purpose, developing poverty-related indicators for its WEAP tool and testing out ways to refine models to include small groups within regions and communities.

Paulino Chavez, former leader of the Organization of Irrigators of Marquina (2015-2017), explains Marquina’s current agricultural challenges. Video: Lina Terrazas / SEI, YouTube .

In Marquina, Bolivia, for example, SEI teamed up with local partners and authorities to collect both hard data and surveys to build a model of Marquina’s water supply. By differentiating the water supply and demand of groups within a watershed – rather than modeling the entire watershed as one group – researchers found inequalities previously hidden. The project also found that some groups held less power than others: for example, while women in Marquina were allowed to own water rights, they were rarely elected to leadership positions and were thus underrepresented in decision-making processes.

With the support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, SEI continues to examine how poverty and gender aspects affect water planning and sanitation in order to inform environmentally sustainable policies that improve the lives of all people, regardless of gender or socio-economic status.

Female farmers in Marquina, Bolivia participate in the closure ceremony of the traditional annual maintenance works of mit’a channels. Photo: Lina Terrazas.

5. Ensure energy and water policies are in sync

Climate change is causing extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts, and storms, that affect global economies and threaten energy and water infrastructure. Making sure energy and water policies align will increase resilience of both resources.

To this end, SEI US and SEI Africa have worked together with stakeholders in seven major river basins in sub-Saharan Africa to develop models that help policymakers consider how to reduce the climate risk to both hydropower and irrigation infrastructure. In the US and China, SEI works with the U.S./China Clean Energy Research Center for Water-Energy Technologies – known as CERC-WET – to research the energy-water nexus and inform the creation of climate-resilient infrastructure and policies.


Icons of 5 water solutions

Graphic: Sharon Mah / Soapbox .