16 Nov 2016

Interview with Dr. Torkil Jønch Clausen

We asked Dr. Torkil Jønch Clausen four questions on global climate change and development goals.

Chair Scientific Programme Committee Stockholm World Water Week, Governor World Water Council and Senior Adviser to DHI and Global Water Partnership.

Question #1
You have worked in developing countries for many years. Do you think that there is sufficient global attention to floods and flood management to create an impact for these in the years to come?

Answer: The short answer is a cautious, yet optimistic ‘yes’.

2015 was a pivotal year for water, and global attention to water issues has never been higher.

The highlight of the year – from a water-in-development perspective – was the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. Through 17 goals with 169 specific targets, it set an ambitious agenda for development through 2030, adopted by all countries of the world.

While the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs (adopted in 2000) addressed only drinking water supply and sanitation, the SDG agenda includes a specific, broad goal on water and sanitation, the SDG #6, the so-called ‘water goal’.

The targets of SDG #6 are not explicit on flood management. But important ‘hooks’ are provided to raise attention, such as the target on implementing integrated water resources management, or IWRM, at all levels by 2030.

Importantly, ‘flood management’ and water-related disasters are explicitly mentioned as key to development in the goals on hunger, cities and human settlements and ecosystems, all important ‘hooks’ for creating commitment to action.

The year ended with COP 21 and the global climate agreement in Paris.

Of all impacts of climate change, the increased frequency and severity of extreme events, not least floods, are the least uncertain and publicly best understood. Also, actions towards and funding for adaptation were important elements of the Paris negotiations.

In short:

All in all: Many significant global commitments for increased action to address flood management. These are all ‘necessary’, but of course not ‘sufficient’ conditions for action, and although some of the high ambitions may not be achieved, important steps in the right direction have been taken.

Question #2
What will be the biggest challenge in the years to come in terms of adapting to a changing climate and increased floods?

Answer: The climate change agenda is profoundly political. And the biggest challenge is of course to reach binding commitments – and consequent actions – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and hence reduce global warming and the many impacts that go with it, not least increased flood frequency and severity in most parts of the world.

The biggest challenges are in the South in countries suffering from poverty and inadequate technical capacity and financial resources. How do they address new challenges that exacerbate existing challenges, which they can hardly cope with as it is?

For flood management, the importance of the capacity issue can be illustrated by comparing flat countries such as The Netherlands and Bangladesh: both have similar exposure to floods due to combination of sea-level rise and inland flooding.

But while the Dutch have the technical, managerial and financial resources to address increasing floods, Bangladesh does not. They may be equally exposed, but Bangladesh is much more vulnerable and needs massive financial and technical assistance to cope.

Question #3
What are some of the most important actions to take in order to adapt and build resilience to climate change?

Answer: The real challenge is to mainstream resilience building to climate change at all levels of development: local, regional, national and even transnational.

‘Adaptation to climate change, including flood management, should not become a new technical discipline, or silo, but part of broader thinking and approaches.’

Flood management needs to be viewed broadly as part of integrated water resources management (IWRM). And it needs to consider all relevant social, economic and environmental aspects, as well as both ‘hard’ infrastructure solutions, and ‘soft’ and nature-based solutions, such as flood plain management, zoning, flood insurance etc.

* What are “no-regret” solutions? No-regret solutions are practices that are beneficial even in the absence of climate change, and where the costs of adaptation are relatively low when compared to the results of the adaptations.

For poor countries, pragmatism and realism are key: address present problems first through ‘no-regret’ solutions* that will have immediate benefits – even if the worst climate change predictions do not materialise. This kind of thinking can be seen at the global level through the Flood Management Programme (operated by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and Global Water Partnership) by trying to combine hydro-meteorological and technical approaches with IWRM into an ‘Integrated Flood management’ approach.

As a good example at the regional level, a major climate change adaptation programme for Africa has adopted a strategic framework that builds on mainstreaming resilience into development planning and focusing on no-regret solutions as first priority.

Question # 4
If you could look into the future, how are we doing in 2030 in terms of reaching the water SDG (SDG #6) and the different targets?

Answer: As said initially I am an optimist, but not naive.

The SDG challenges are not new, so if we are really serious about them, why did we not act earlier?

We still face enormous challenges in translating these principles into action, but at least the world has taken a major step in the right direction by negotiating and agreeing to these goals and targets.

We may get close to achieving SDG 6.1 By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water. However it will probably not be totally ‘equitable’ and ‘for all’ as stated.

Some of the other targets in SDG 6 are more flexibly-formulated.

For instance:

  • Improving water quality
  • Halving proportion of untreated wastewater(ambitious when 80-90% go untreated today)
  • Substantially increasing water-use efficiency

These are new targets in new areas and do in fact hold promise by raising attention to important challenges-come-opportunities.

That applies not only to governments, but also to the private sector and civil society. The race has begun, and public and private sector in various countries are competing to make progress. Not only to save the world, but also in the process create growth and jobs.

The SDG 6.5 to ‘implement IWRM at all levels by 2030’ has potentially a special role as the key to make ‘water the connector’ across the SDG targets, within SDG 6, and across the SDGs.

A major challenge in achieving the SDGs is the continuation of silo thinking: the various goals and targets have been defined by their own sectors and communities with little consideration to their interaction with other sectors and actors.

Yet practically none of the SDG targets can be achieved without progress on many other targets! And the mechanisms to create and operationalise links between them are basically lacking.

Implementing IWRM can be helpful in building bridges between water and other sectors and areas such as food, energy, ecosystems etc.