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Water at the wrong place, wrong time: How can we cope?

15 September 2013

Manggahan floodway, southern Metro Manila, Philippines. Photo credit: P Walpole

Rowena Soriaga and Wendy Clavano

The World Water Week 2013  closes with a Stockholm Statement calling on the UN and its Open Working Group to propose in the post-2015 development agenda a Sustainable Development Goal on Water.

Three outcomes are aspired by 2030: 1) a doubling of global water productivity, 2) a realisation of the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and 3) an increased resilience to water related disasters. These desired outcomes reflect the advocacy of water movements to address different facets of water problems: too little, too dirty, and too much.

In large areas in the western Pacific and in monsoonal India, the worst and most frequent natural calamities are those induced by water coming to the wrong place at the wrong time (or else not enough water coming where it is needed the most) that leads to floods, landslides, and droughts. We are halfway through 2013, and already the International Disaster Database  has recorded 18 flood disaster events in the Asian region affecting 1.8 million people.

The third outcome is very important to the Asia-Pacific region, and this is why the Institute of Environmental Science for Social Change), in partnership with GIAN-Ecology, sought to promote increasing risk resilience as an integral part of water discussions during the World Water Week.

How can we increase our resilience to water-related disasters? The Stockholm Statement provides some guidelines and recommended that resilience to water-related disasters can be increased “by comprehensive risk management, sustaining healthy ecosystems and improving water quality are prerequisites for the provision of safe water, food, energy and other basic needs for people and societies in the future we want.” The statement also shared that “wise water management, building on ecosystem-based approaches, is a prerequisite for securing resilience. Integrating water resource management at all levels in the planning, building and governing of our societies will save lives, livelihoods and assets.”

In the context of climate change and increasing social vulnerability, disaster risk reduction needs to incorporate scientific analysis of hydrometeorological data that can support better characterization of hazards that contribute to water-related disaster risks. Improved understanding of hazards can help to improve communication of these risks. Effective communication needs to affect the perception of risk and culture of safety of an individual, community, or society, in a way that induces human adaptation through pre-emptive actions that decrease impacts. Wise water management, in our present context, means finding ways to transform land and water governance.

Risk resilience is recognized as being of highest concern in the south Asia and Asia Pacific regions and more effort is planned in communicating the learnings drawn from both recent data analyses and practical response of communities. The Institute is undertaking site assessments of relocation areas where homeless people’s groups and informal settler families are moving in, assisting local governments and local parishes for improved decision making in disaster risk reduction planning and management through the use of decision support tools and participatory mapping, exploring alternative housing materials for low-cost housing, and developing risk assessment profiles of vulnerable communities for integration in disaster reduction and management plans. The intention is to develop a focused dialogue with key stakeholders in national government and its responsible line agencies, local governments and communities in flood- and landslide-prone areas, assisting groups and development agencies, the scientific community, media, and the private sector.

There is also a reaffirmation of the need to move discussions in areas of sustainability science that consider a more integral approach to global problems at the local level so that people in society do not pick and choose what is “of concern” to them. We have to learn in today’s world much more rapidly that all of these matters are a shared concern and we must learn to share resources, especially water and protection from water.

And finally, one of the lessons learned in participating in the scientific discussions in Stockholm was that there was a lot more work to be done in trying to anticipate the extremes and surprises that we can expect from the imbalances that humans have introduced. Yet, there is also a great concern about the scientific community in terms of the lack of political capacity, corporate commitment, and civil society collaboration to actually to bring about adequate responses within a given time. Part of the challenge is now seen as formulating with the youth of today a meaningful and effective value system that will bring us closer to sustaining a one earth ecosystem.

These three areas are forming a key part of the Institute’s discussions in the coming year and require harnessing the full complement of its competence and capacities and reaching out more broadly to develop collaboration and partnerships locally and globally.

Rowena Soriaga and Wendy Clavano are research scientists at the Institute of Environmental Science for Social Change, a Jesuit research organization in the Philippines that develops environmental mechanisms with communities and local governments to promote appropriate resource management and implementation.

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