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.
India advances ground-breaking plan to keep planet and people cool
India’s new comprehensive Cooling Action Plan targets an increase in sustainable cooling for the good of its population, while helping to fight climate change
Four years after temperatures hit the high forties in India, claiming over 2,000 lives, parts of the country are again baking in intense, and deadly, heatwaves. Throughout April and into May, the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan have seen daily highs of 42°C.
As climate change increases, such temperatures are becoming the new normal. Combined with economic growth and urbanization, this brings a huge growth in cooling demand. The number of air conditioners in India is expected to rise from 15 million in 2011 to 240 million in 2030.
Cooling isn’t just about protecting against extreme temperatures. A recent study from the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative puts India in the top nine countries at greatest risk from lack of access to cooling technology that also keeps food fresh, vaccines stable and children in education.
To give just a few examples, a quarter of vaccines in India arrive damaged because of broken or inefficient cold chains, while only four per cent of fresh produce is transported in refrigerated vehicles, leading to economic losses of US$4.5 billion annually.
Aware of these worrying statistics, the government launched earlier this year the India Cooling Action Plan, the first such holistic plan from any national government.
“Cooling is a developmental need, yet India has one of the lowest levels of access in the world,” says CK Mishra, Secretary at the Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change. “To support economic growth and improve resilience, it is inevitable that India will embrace cooling.
“By accelerating and integrating policies, regulations, workforce training and research and development, this plan mobilizes government, industry and society to ensure thermal comfort for all while keeping to our international environmental commitments and not burdening ourselves with inefficient, expensive infrastructure and an overstretched power grid.
“The plan recognizes the significant role of accelerated action on building and appliance efficiency, and the economic and environmental benefits of new technologies such as thermal storage and district cooling.”
Energy efficiency a key approach
By 2038, the plan aims to reduce cooling demand by up to 25 per cent, refrigerant demand by 25–30 per cent and cooling energy requirements by up to 40 per cent. It aims to double farmers’ incomes by improving the cold chain and so wasting less food.
These are big goals, but experts believe India’s plan is sensible and achievable.
“Living in India you quickly understand the importance of keeping cool for your health and day-to-day functioning,” says Benjamin Hickman, a UN Environment technical advisor based in India. “This plan acknowledges head-on that Indian cooling demand will grow eightfold in 20 years and recommends a myriad of cross-cutting solutions that urgently need to be implemented and scaled up.”
Crucially, the plan also aligns India’s cooling growth with the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. This international agreement obliges nations to phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—refrigerants that are thousands of times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.
Globally, the agreement can deliver up to 0.4°C of avoided warming by the end of this century just by phasing out hydrofluorocarbons. Simultaneously improving the energy efficiency of cooling equipment could double the benefits. According to a study by the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, such energy efficiency improvements can benefit India. If the average room air conditioner efficiency improves by six per cent per year, more than 64 TWh per year of energy could be saved by 2030. This would cut greenhouse gas emissions, protect cities’ power infrastructure from overload, and bring cumulative consumer benefits of up to US$25 billion.
Prioritizing new cooling solutions
The plan doesn’t just look at efficiency. It prioritizes other solutions, such as passive cooling, building design, fans and coolers, new technologies and behavioural change. Among the new technologies is district cooling—the distribution of cooling energy from a central plant to multiple buildings.
The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is co-chair of the UN Environment-led District Energy in Cities Initiative, which is working with three pilot cities—Amaravati, Rajkot and Thane – in India to demonstrate these technologies. Three quarters of the buildings required for 2030 have yet to be built, so there is a huge opportunity for new urban developments to use district cooling, which can be up to 50 per cent more efficient than stand-alone solutions.
“UN Environment praises India’s leadership in being the first country to adopt a comprehensive plan for the cooling sector,” says Atul Bagai, Head of UN Environment’s India Country Office. “Singling cooling out is vital to scaling up and targeting action on what has for years been a silently growing environmental catastrophe, and India’s Cooling Action Plan should set the benchmark for other countries to follow. UN Environment stands ready to support India to achieve and surpass its targets.”
Last month, UN Environment, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program, and Sustainable Energy for All launched the Cool Coalition. The coalition is a unified front that links action across the Kigali Amendment, Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals. It will inspire ambition, identify solutions and mobilize action to accelerate progress towards clean and efficient cooling.
These kinds of actions provide hope that we can help keep everyone, and the planet, cool.
Just One-Third of the World’s Longest Rivers Remain Free-Flowing
Just over one-third (37%) of the world’s 246 longest rivers remain free-flowing, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Nature. Dams and reservoirs are drastically reducing the diverse benefits that healthy rivers provide to people and nature across the globe.
A team of 34 international researchers from McGill University, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and other institutions  assessed the connectivity status of 12 million kilometers (~7.5 million miles) of rivers worldwide, providing the first ever global assessment of the location and extent of the planet’s remaining free-flowing rivers. 
Among other findings, the researchers determined only 21 of the world’s 91 rivers longer than 1,000 km (~600 miles) that originally flowed to the ocean still retain a direct connection from source to sea. The planet’s remaining free-flowing rivers are largely restricted to remote regions of the Arctic, the Amazon Basin, and the Congo Basin.
“The world’s rivers form an intricate network with vital links to land, groundwater, and the atmosphere,’’ said lead author Günther Grill of McGill’s Department of Geography. ‘’Free-flowing rivers are important for humans and the environment alike, yet economic development around the world is making them increasingly rare. Using satellite imagery and other data, our study examines the extent of these rivers in more detail than ever before.”
Dams and reservoirs are the leading contributors to connectivity loss in global rivers. The study estimates there are around 60,000 large dams worldwide, and more than 3,700 hydropower dams are currently planned or under construction. They are often planned and built at the individual project level, making it difficult to assess their real impacts across an entire basin or region.
“Rivers are the lifeblood of our planet,” said Michele Thieme, lead freshwater scientist at WWF and global leader of WWF’s free-flowing rivers initiative. “They provide diverse benefits that are often overlooked and undervalued. This first-ever map of the world’s remaining free-flowing rivers will help decision makers prioritize and protect the full value rivers give to people and nature.”
Healthy rivers support freshwater fish stocks that improve food security for hundreds of millions of people, deliver sediment that keeps deltas above rising seas, mitigate the impact of extreme floods and droughts, prevent loss of infrastructure and fields to erosion, and support a wealth of biodiversity. Disrupting rivers’ connectivity often diminishes or even eliminates these critical ecosystem services.
Protecting remaining free-flowing rivers is also crucial to saving biodiversity in freshwater systems. Recent analysis of 16,704 populations of wildlife globally showed that populations of freshwater species experienced the most pronounced decline of all vertebrates over the past half-century, falling on average 83 percent since 1970.
The study also notes that climate change will further threaten the health of rivers worldwide. Rising temperatures are already impacting flow patterns, water quality, and biodiversity. Meanwhile, as countries around the world shift to low-carbon economies, hydropower planning and development is accelerating, adding urgency to the need to develop energy systems that minimize overall environmental and social impact.
“Renewable energy is like a recipe – you have to find the right mix of ingredients to have both a sustainable energy grid and a thriving natural world,” said Thieme. “While hydropower inevitably has a role to play in the renewable energy landscape, well-planned wind and solar energy can be more viable options for rivers and the communities, cities, and biodiversity that rely on them.”
The international community is committed to protect and restore rivers under Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, which requires countries to track the extent and condition of water-related ecosystems. This study delivers methods and data necessary for countries to maintain and restore free-flowing rivers around the world.
Visit freeflowingrivers.org for more information on free-flowing rivers and an interactive map of the world’s rivers.
 Contributing Institutions:
McGill University, WWF-US, WWF-NL, WWF-UK, WWF-Mediterranean, WWF-India, University of Basel, Joint Research Centre (JRC), WWF-China, WWF-Canada, WWF-Zambia, WWF Greater Mekong Programme, The Nature Conservancy, University of Nevada, WWF-Malaysia, IHE Delft, WWF- Germany and HTWG Konstanz, King’s College London, Umeå University, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, University of Washington, Harvard University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Conservation International , WWF-Mexico, WWF International, Stanford University, Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), Freie Universität Berlin, WWF-Brazil, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen.
 First ever science-based definition of a free-flowing river:
Rivers where ecosystem functions and services are largely unaffected by changes to fluvial connectivity allowing an unobstructed exchange of water, material, species, and energy within the river system and with surrounding landscapes.
5 things you need to know about forests and the UN
Forests are vitally important for sustaining life on Earth, and play a major role in the fight against climate change. With the 2019 session of the United Nations Forum on Forests wrapping up on Friday in New York, we delve deeper into the subject, and find out what the UN is doing to safeguard and protect them.
Forests are the most cost-effective way to fight climate change
Arguably, protection and enhancing the world’s forests is one of the most cost-effective forms of climate action: forests act as carbon sinks, absorbing roughly 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Sustainable forest management can build resilience and help mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Speaking at the 2018 UN climate conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, Liu Zhemin, head of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), said that “forests are central in developing solutions both to mitigate and adapt to climate change, adding that “these terrestrial ecosystems have already removed nearly one third of human-produced carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere. Through sustainable forest management, they could remove much more.”
At this week’s meeting session of the UNFF, it was noted that forest-based climate change mitigation and adaptation actions, if fully implemented, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 15 gigatonnes of CO2 a year by 2050, which could potentially be enough to limit warming to well below 2°C (the target set by the international community in 2015). Today, fossil fuels emit 36 gigatonnes every year.
In addition, as renewable sources increasingly replace fossil fuels, forests will become more and more important as sources of energy: already, forests supply about 40 per cent of global renewable energy in the form of wood fuel – as much as solar, hydroelectric and wind power combined.
The goal of zero deforestation is close to being reached
Significant progress has been made in international forest protection over the past 25 years. The rate of net global deforestation has slowed by more than 50 per cent, a credit to global efforts to sustainably manage existing forests, while at the same time engaging in ambitious measures to restore degraded forests and land, and to plant more trees to meet the demand for forest products and services.
The goal of zero net global deforestation is close to being reached, bringing the world one step closer to the UN Strategic Plan for Forest’s target to expand global forest area by 3 per cent by 2030, an area of 120 million hectares, about the size of South Africa.
The biggest threat to forests is…agriculture
Many people will be aware of the devastating effects that illegal and unsustainable logging has on forests, but the biggest global driver of deforestation is actually agriculture, because of the extent to which forests are converted to farmland and livestock grazing land: a key challenge is how to manage the ongoing increase in agricultural production, and improve food security, without reducing overall forest areas.
A major UN report on biodiversity, released in May, made headlines around the world with its headline figure of one million species at risk of extinction, warned against the destruction of forests, noting that this “will likely have negative impacts on biodiversity and can threaten food and water security as well as local livelihoods, including by intensifying social conflict.”
The UN’s growing role in forest protection
The first time forests came to the forefront of the international agenda was at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, widely regarded as one of the landmark UN conferences. The Summit led to the adoption of Agenda 21, the first significant international action plan for achieving sustainable development, which noted the “major weaknesses in the policies, methods and mechanisms adopted to support and develop the multiple ecological, economic, social and cultural roles of trees, forests and forest lands.”
The Earth Summit also saw the adoption of the Forest Principles which, although non-legally binding, was the first global consensus reached on the sustainable management of forests. The Principles called for all countries to make efforts towards reforestation and forest conservation; enshrined the right of nations to develop forests in keeping with national sustainable development policies; and called for financial resources to be provided for targeted economic policies.
To better co-ordinate international efforts to put the principles into practice, an inter-governmental panel and forum were set up in the 1990s, to be replaced in 2000 by the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF), which meets every year at UN Headquarters in New York to monitor progress on the implementation of the six Global Forest Goals.
The Goals set targets for the sustainable management of forests, and reduction of deforestation and forest degradation, and were developed as part the forest community’s response to the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN’s overall blueprint for economic progress that protects the environment and humanity.
This year’s top priorities: climate change and the real cost of deforestation
One of the key take-aways from the 2019 session of the UN Forest Forum was that, too often, forests are under-valued, because it’s hard to put a clear monetary value on all of the positive contributions they make to the world.
As a result, the true cost of deforestation and forest degradation is not taken into account when policy decisions are made on land use, such as decisions to clear forest land to use for commercial agriculture.
The importance of financing was another important element of the session: sufficient funding is an essential element in ensuring effective action to halt deforestation and forest degradation, promote greater sustainable forest management and increase the world’s forest area: despite the central role forests play in protecting the environment, only 2 per cent of funds available for climate change mitigation are available for efforts to reduce deforestation.
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