Freshwater Action Network
– grassroots influencing on water and sanitation

Moving forward from Copenhagen. What next for water in climate change negotiations?

On Tuesday night, I set off from London on behalf Freshwater Action Network. When I arrived to check in for my flight I was asked, “Where are you going?”

“Copenhagen.” I confidently replied.

The woman looked at me and looked at my ticket skeptically.

“Wait, no. Cologne. Bonn.” I corrected myself.

In my defense, it makes sense that I have Copenhagen on the brain. I was headed to the first climate change negotiations since Copenhagen (known better by the shorthand of (COP-15). (COP-15 is the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – the parent treaty to the Kyoto Protocol). 

Our colleague Ceridwen Johnson attended the pre-Copenhagen talks in Barcelona and worked with other water campaigners (in particular the Global Public Policy Network on Water Management (GPPN) which is relaunching today as the Water and Climate Coalition)  for the inclusion of strong water language in the text on climate change adaptation presented to heads of state as COP-15 concluded. In the end, there was an explicit reference to the role of water resource management and the reference has been retained in the negotiating text prepared by the UNFCC for the climate change talks this week.

But it is not enough. The final reference from COP-15 watered down previous stronger references that had appeared within the text throughout the process of negotiation – including strong references to Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) as a specific approach. Moreover, as many of you know, the talks concluded without consensus so the ‘final’ text, known as the Copenhagen Accord (pdf), was actually not what was negotiated during the talks but is a non legally binding statement which delegates to COP-15 agree to ‘take note of’ but does not commit countries to agree to binding agreements.  The status of the Accord within the negotiations (for example as a guiding document) is still unclear and is contested by some country delegations. 

I have been astounded over the many months of these various negotiations how hard a small critical mass of campaigners and advocates has had to fight for even a minimum focus on water — since climate change = water change. As Paul Dickenson, CEO of the Carbon Disclosure Project points out, “If climate change is a shark, then water is its teeth.”

Climate change adaptation that includes a sustainable vision for integrated water resource management and regional cooperation on shared water resources (for a start) should not be controversial. That doesn’t mean it won’t be difficult to operationalise, but including it in political agreements now, is a clear recognition that it is important and indicates a political commitment to do the necessary heavy lifting.

In the side event yesterday, hosted by the Water and Climate Change Coalition, one of the country climate negotiators noted that the stronger language on water had been removed as part of the consolidation of text to make it more ‘manageable and negotiable in the time available’ and that greater specificity was something that would happen at another level – the level of implementation.

But who among us doesn’t recognize the importance of a strong ‘terms of reference’ before starting any project? Who doesn’t want a solid guiding shared vision for making it clear where the opportunities for leverage and impact actually exist? Such agreements are a firewall of sorts against irrelevant interventions and competing priorities – for example strong unregulated multinational companies with a profit imperative that may be in competition with development decisions that would most benefit people and/or are most sustainable.

The texts that ultimately result from the climate change negotiations serve not only as a blueprint which will guide actions on climate change for years to come, they can be held up in the face of obstacles to implementation and to ‘solutions’ which get it wrong or compete with one another. They can also(importantly) guide the allocation of finance for those approaches and measures that are deemed to be most appropriate. Getting the text right and getting it specific is critical.

Or is it?

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