Online data is helping water authorities collaborate across borders to fight the impacts of climate change
It’s a cycle that is becoming all too common around the globe. A swing from flood to drought and back that costs nations billions of dollars every year and threatens not just the livelihoods but the very lives of millions of people.
Developing countries are often worst hit. In Kenya in 2018, close to 200 people died as a result of the worst flooding since 1997, with more than 300,000 displaced and over 21,000 acres of farmland destroyed, leaving thousands of people without livelihoods or sustenance.
The big wet came on the back of the nation’s worst drought since 2010, with 23 of 47 counties affected, leaving 3.4 million people severely food insecure and an estimated 500,000 people without access to water.
What is happening in Kenya is true in almost every corner of the world. Flood and drought are becoming not only increasingly common, but more intense and less predictable. Climate change may be the major driver, but the impacts are becoming ever more severe as a growing global population, increasing urbanization and pressures from agriculture and industry all tax scarce water resources and put more people at risk.
The World Resources Institute and partners estimate that floods disrupt as much as US$96 billion in gross domestic product (GDP) each year, with drought costing the agriculture industry alone US$6-8 billion annually according to the United Nations.
While global action is being taken to avert worst-case scenario climate change, the impacts being felt around the world already are very real – and often, nothing short of deadly.
According to UN Environment’s Yegor Volovik, to deal with flood and drought effectively, we need to be able to predict these risks – and to be adequately prepared for water shortages or surfeits as they occur.
“Building resilience and adapting to future challenges is essential to reducing both the human and the economic cost of climate change,” Volovik says.
“This is especially important in transboundary settings, where water resources are shared between two or more countries. With access to the right data and information, governments and water authorities can plan together to overcome these challenges despite political and economic competition.”
Enabling this planning is a core objective of the Flood and Drought Management Tools project, a four-year, multi-million-dollar, Global Environment Facility-backed initiative to improve the ability of water utilities and catchment authorities to predict and plan for flood and drought impacts.
Led by UN Environment, in partnership with the International Water Association and DHI Water & Environment, the project works with 10 water authorities across six countries and three transboundary river basins to pilot a groundbreaking online system that provides near-real-time access to hydrographic, meteorological and demographic information.
Transforming data into useable information
The new Flood and Drought Portal aggregates and translates publicly available data from a range of sources, making it accessible to water authorities in a form they can use to support decisions at a local level.
“There are satellites that countries and regions like the United States and the European Union have put up that are collecting climate data – and that’s freely available for anyone, but not really accessible,” the International Water Association’s Katherine Cross says. “This system processes that data and puts it into useable formats.”
“There’s forecasting data, as well as climate scenario data, that you’re able to visualise – you can see it as a graph, you can download it and use it as you want. The system brings all this data, whether satellite data or historical data, into one place and presents it in a digestible format.”
But the portal does more than just democratize data – it enables water authorities to put it to use to manage and overcome water-related risks in a changing climate.
“The portal doesn’t just provide data and information, it provides tools that allow you to integrate that into your planning,” Cross says. “There are other portals that provide climate data, but there aren’t any systems that provide a package allowing you to access information and then use it in your planning process.”
The portal includes flood and drought assessment tools that help users locate and identify hazards, estimate impacts and provide risk assessments; a water indicator tool to support decision making; tools for water safety planning; and even an application to understand crop yields and water needs.
Getting the latest, most relevant data, is key
“When you have to take a decision, you want the latest data possible,” says DHI’s Bertrand Richaud. “So that’s one of the things the portal offers – it’s not just a repository of archived data, but it actually reflects the up-to-date state of the basin, and moves from this data to information that is meaningful.”
As a key part of the portal’s development, the system is being piloted across Lake Victoria, the Volta basin and the Chao Phraya basin. The pilot brings together stakeholders from local catchment authorities and water utilities to fine-tune and learn to use the tools.
At a training in Kenya’s Kisumu, representatives from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are positive about the transformative potential of the portal as they work to collaboratively manage the area’s shared water resources.
“It is important because getting this information in time can help us plan better, so at the operational level there are no surprises,” says George Odero, Water Safety Planning Team Leader at the Kisumu Water and Sewerage Company.
“For example, if we know that rain is coming next week and that we will need to do a lot of pumping, then we check the pumps. If we know there will be drought in the next few months, then we start giving people warnings to conserve water and we check the pipes that supply them.”
A collaboration tool for water authorities
By bringing together stakeholders from across transboundary basins, the Flood and Drought Management Tools project also encourages cooperation between countries, catchment authorities and utilities that rely on shared water resources.
“It is quite important, because when we talk about transboundary contexts, we talk about political boundaries – and catchments do not respect political boundaries,” says International Water Association Programme Officer Kizito Masinde.
The utilities at the Kisumu training all sit in the Lake Victoria Basin – their key source of water. This makes collaboration across borders essential.
“They have to find a way of cooperating, because any abstraction from the lake is going to affect the other utilities and all the other activities that happen within the basin, whether that be farming activities or industrial activities,” Masinde says.
While the focus may be on the tools now at hand, forging connections between different stakeholders has been equally important, as utilities and catchment authorities come together to share both their challenges and solutions.
“It has also helped us to talk to other people – because we are sharing the same problem, and they can also share it from their perspective and see possible solutions,” Odero says. “If we know what other organizations are doing, then we can plan with them.”
With the tools in place – and an enthusiastic response from stakeholders across the three pilot basins – the focus is now on how to upscale the pilot’s success to other transboundary river basins.
“I think there is great potential,” Richaud says. “We’ve seen interest from many international and transboundary organizations, from the Amazon to basins in Africa, Europe and Russia.”
“What I like about this project is that it is scalable to about any basin organization. There will always be a set of tools that are relevant to them.”
The Flood and Drought Management Tools project is a four-year project (2014-2018) that develops and tests web-based technical applications, and makes them available through the Flood and Drought Portal. The tools can be applied individually or together to include information about floods, droughts and future scenarios into planning. It can be scaled from the transboundary basin to the water utility level. The project is testing outputs in the Volta basin, Lake Victoria and the Chao Phraya basin, with the aim of improving the ability of land, water, and urban area managers in transboundary river basins to recognize and address the implications of the increased frequency, magnitude, and unpredictability of flood and drought events arising from climate variability and change.
Diving into a cleaner blue ocean in 2019
When Miao Wang started diving, she was shocked at the deterioration of the ocean ecosystem around her. Now, three months after winning the Young Champions of the Earth prize for Asia and the Pacific, she has made great strides in addressing ocean protection.
“About eight million tonnes of plastic waste enter the ocean every year, causing 15 million deaths among marine life,” she explains. “Divers, who as a group stay long enough with the ocean, witness the degradation of the ecosystem while touched by its beauty.”
Her Better Blue initiative has already forged relationships with new donors, and she has signed agreements with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, the watch manufacturers Rossini and The Paradise Foundation.
As well as looking for further funding to support her projects going forward, she has trained many others to become divers and was selected to participate in a “speed incubator programme,” which trains young people in diving and collecting information about the ocean.
Wang has also developed a prototype for an education programme on sustainable consumption, which can be shared among people visiting popular cafes. Already, she has implemented the education programme in 10 cafes across Shanghai.
The cooperation among various popular cafes in Shanghai and soon other cities in China too, will advocate for providing alternatives to single-use plastic straws, and encouraging the cafes to replace their plastic cups with degradable ones.
Miao and Better Blue also attended the Xiamen Marathon – the first international marathon to join UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign – and had a stand in the exhibition hall during the week leading up to the marathon.
“We continue to focus on the most essential job of organizing ourselves internally to handle operations and logistics. We are a small team and need to constantly prioritize to ensure we can deliver on all our goals. Going forward in 2019, this is an aspect of our business that we aim to strengthen, to keep Better Blue heading in the right direction.”
“Next year, we hope to engage in more cross-border collaboration, especially with some major brands, to convey key messages about sustainable living, turning marine protection into a way of life. We also hope to inspire other people to protect the ocean too, as that is where all life begins,” she said.
“The Young Champions of the Earth prize has been a major support for Better Blue, helping us to take our mission from strength to strength.
“In addition to participating in the Professional Association of Diving Instructors annual gala and providing trainings to diving centers, Better blue will continue to work on its development strategy and financial risk management, as we look forward to a successful 2019,” she said.
Lessons from China on large-scale landscape restoration
In the 1980s, the hilly Qianyanzhou region in Jiangxi Province, southern China, faced severe soil erosion due to deforestation and unsustainable farming practices. Fertile red soil was being washed away causing crop yields to tumble.
But a remarkable change has taken place in the last 30 years thanks to a government-backed land-use plan which has seen the upper hills reforested, citrus orchards planted on moderate slopes, and rice paddies in valley bottoms. Within a few years, this mosaic of sustainable land use was yielding higher incomes. Biodiversity and environmental quality, as well as the microclimate, improved.
In early November 2018, the head of UN Environment’s freshwater, land and climate branch, Tim Christopherson, together with his colleague Xiaoqiong Li, visited several sites in the area to better understand how large-scale ecological restoration works.
Huimin Wang, the director of an ecological research station in Ji’an, Qianyanzhou region, briefed UN Environment on the problem and the centre’s role in restoring the landscape.
“Thirty years ago, this area was denuded of trees and vulnerable to landslides. Erosion gullies washed fertile red soil away,” says Wang.
“We set up this ecological research station to work out how best to restore the land. We brought together experts from around the world, including from the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation in Germany.”
Research focused on forest structure optimization and how to improve ecosystem services from the forest; the structure and functions of forest ecology; carbon, water and nutrient cycling in forest ecosystems under climate change; and the Qianyanzhou upgrade model to be achieved by improving ecological and economic benefits in the watershed.
Another key element of the restoration process was agroforestry, supported by the local government: farmers continued to grow cash crops such as peanuts, sesame and vegetables among the restored orchards, and breed Silkie chickens (black-boned with fluffy plumage) in orchards and forest plantations. This ensured economic returns in the early stages of the project and helped improve soil fertility. As well as building dams and ponds, government agencies provided loans to households to help them get started.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 21.9 per cent, or 206,861,000 hectares of China, was forested in 2010. In just one decade, the Qianyanzhou restoration drive has increased China’s total forest area by 74.3 million hectares. Qianyanzhou’s forest coverage has increased from 0.43 per cent to nearly 70 per cent.
Qianyanzhou restoration efforts have helped the region and the country take a big step towards implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Goals 1 (No Poverty), 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), 8 (Good Jobs and Economic Growth), 12 (Responsible Consumption), and 15 (Life on Land), as well as the Bonn Challenge and the New York Declaration on Forests, all of which fall under UN Environment’s programme of work.
Forests are a major, requisite front of action in the global fight against catastrophic climate change, thanks to their unparalleled capacity to absorb and store carbon. Forests capture carbon dioxide at a rate equivalent to about one-third the amount released annually by burning fossil fuels. Stopping deforestation and restoring damaged forests, therefore, could provide up to 30 per cent of the climate solution.
The United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (The UN-REDD Programme) was launched in 2008 and builds on the convening role and technical expertise of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme and UN Environment.
Plastic recycling: An underperforming sector ripe for a remake
While there is no silver-bullet solution to the toxic tide of plastic surging into our oceans, recycling must form part of the answer. The problem, many experts say, is that current processes are not fit for purpose.
The world produces around 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. To date, only 9 per cent of the plastic waste ever generated has been recycled, and only 14 per cent is collected for recycling now.
The reasons are complex. Not all plastic can be recycled and a lack of public awareness means plastic collections are often contaminated. This can increase the cost of recycling.
In the United States, for example, the introduction of single-stream recycling—where recyclables are not separated in household collections—led to a huge surge in recycling rates, but as plastics became more complex, people started placing the wrong things in their bins. Waste Management, the largest processor of residential recycling in North America, says that one in every four items in recycling bins today is not recyclable.
“Chemicals added to plastic polymers, products made of mixed materials and food packaging contaminated with food waste make recycling difficult and costly,” wrote the authors of UN Environment’s The State of Plastics report.
The need to rethink recycling became more apparent when China, which has imported nearly half the world’s waste since 1992, stopped taking foreign plastic waste this year. China’s decision exposed weaknesses in recycling facilities in many other countries.
There are financial reasons for the shortfalls. Depending on the oil price, it is often cheaper to make virgin plastic while the market for recycled plastic is notoriously volatile, making investors reluctant to commit to the sector.
For years, activists have argued that packaging producers and retailers should pay more to cover the cost of dealing with their waste. While many brands have committed to using more recycled plastic, the pressure is growing for them to do more.
In Britain, the government is said to be planning to charge supermarkets, retailers and major drinks brands tens of millions of pounds more towards the cost of recycling. The strategy would include plans to increase contributions from retailers and producers from an average of about 70 million pounds a year to between 500 million pounds and 1 billion pounds a year. There are also plans to include smaller producers.
The European Commission unveiled a Plastics Strategy in January, saying that its drive to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030 could create 200,000 jobs but only if recycling capacity was multiplied fourfold. The European Union recycles less than 30 per cent of its 25 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, and half of that used to be sent to China.
As part of its strategy, the European Union will develop new rules on packaging to improve the recyclability of plastics and increase demand. It wants to see improved and scaled up recycling facilities and a more standardized system for the separate collection and sorting of waste.
UN Environment, which started its Clean Seas campaign in 2017 to push for the elimination of unnecessary single-use plastics, also supports the implementation of integrated waste management systems through its International Environmental Technology Centre in Japan.
There is clearly a need to support waste management strategies in poorer countries, where municipal authorities often do not have the capacity to implement suitable policies. Some of these countries are also among the biggest marine polluters: 90 per cent of the plastic in our oceans comes from just 10 rivers, with eight of those in Asia.
Some of the industry’s top players have spotted the gaps. In October, waste management company Veolia and consumer goods giant Unilever said they would work together to invest in new technologies to increase recycling and move towards a circular economy.
The three-year partnership will focus, at first, on India and Indonesia where the firms will work to scale up waste collection and recycling infrastructure.
Circulate Capital, an investment management firm dedicated to preventing ocean plastic, said in October that it expected US$90 million in funding from some of the world’s leading consumer good groups and chemical companies, including PepsiCo, P&G, Dow and Coca-Cola.
Created in collaboration with Closed Loop Partners and the Ocean Conservancy, Circulate Capital aims to demonstrate the value of investing in waste management and recycling in South and Southeast Asia. It uses philanthropic and public funds, as well as technical assistance, to support and develop public and nonprofit entities to implement new approaches and build capacity that can support large institutional capital commitments.
“We have recognized that financing is a key barrier—as people always want to know ‘who is going to pay for it?’ By removing capital for infrastructure and operators as a barrier, we believe we can accelerate solutions to policy, education, supply chains and more,” said Rob Kaplan, the founder and CEO of Circulate Capital.
Big name corporations are not the only players. In many developing economies, recycling is carried out by millions of waste pickers, often women, children, the elderly and the unemployed. They may be on the frontline of sustainability but their own lives are often marred by unhealthy working conditions, lack of rights and social stigma.
The World Bank said in its What a Waste 2.0 report that when waste pickers are properly supported and organized, informal recycling can create employment, improve local industrial competitiveness, reduce poverty and decrease municipal spending.
Citizens also have a role to play but education and information are essential. The World Bank cites the example of Jamaica, where environmental wardens, employed by the National Solid Waste Management Authority, teach their neighbours about environmentally friendly disposal of waste. The communities involved collect plastic bottles and remove plastic litter from shared spaces and drains. They then sell the collected bottles to recyclers.
“There is no silver bullet to solving ocean plastic and scaling global recycling—investing in public education without infrastructure won’t achieve results, and vice versa,” said Circulate Capital’s Kaplan. “It is a systems challenge that requires systems solutions.”
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