The true cost of water – changing the narrative – Opinion article



Climate planning, adaptation and resilience


Do you drink tap or bottled water? Do you have an idea of how much water your new pair of jeans has required to be produced? Or even the rice in your plate tonight? If you have opened the news these months, you cannot escape it: water is the focus topic of many articles and investigations and of course alerts, but also awareness-raising campaigns. Let’s have a look at the issue and some communication campaigns set to raise awareness about it.  

While France24 released a broadcast under the title “Water, the new war?” or earlier in May detailing the Spanish Tage conflict highlighting the lack of water, other areas are suffering from historic floods. In Emilia Romagna, Italy, the floods end of May were preceded by a drought that had dried out the land, reducing its capacity to absorb water…

Historic levels of floods and droughts are captured around the globe once again -and already- this year, countries suffering temperatures never experienced before are adopting emergency plans and budgets: for instance, while Portugal will benefit from EU aid following the droughts, the Spanish government adopted an emergency plan of €2.2billion to support farmers, invest in (hydraulic) facilities and develop occupational risk prevention. As early as in May, in Spain, the reservoirs were already dry and 80% of cultivated land asphyxiated by water stress, Spain logged “hottest Spring on record”. And it is not anymore only the Mediterranean areas which suffer, northern regions are widely impacted too – 27.68% of soils in Europe and on the shores of the Mediterranean were in a drought situation during the last decade of April, according to the European Drought Observatory, analysing satellite data from the European programme Copernicus. Impacts are a reality and no more “far away” projections. 

Over half of the World’s lakes and reservoirs are losing water, even in humid regions – ¼ of the global population lives in an area where a lake or reservoir is drying up. And what’s more – 100 times more to be precise: April’s record heat wave in Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Algeria was made at least 100 times more likely by climate change, scientists from the World Weather Attribution (WWA, specialist in the links between extreme events and climate) estimate. 

Solutions are presented such as in a cooperation between Euronews and the European Commission – “Freshwater for all: Europe faces up to the challenge”, highlighting examples in Germany and Spain, or French media Reporterre, showcasing how Andalucia uses regenerative agriculture on dried soils: organic production, soil cover, diversified plantations, a mix between crop and livestock, and more, not forgetting the social aspect (dignified treatment of workers). The initiative was cited as an example of good practice by the United Nations in its latest report on desertification in the world[1]. Other solutions tested include desalination plants to turn seawater into fresh water, reusing wastewater, follow the principles of dryland farming – agriculture in arid zones, practiced particularly in Africa (the cereals grown require little water and the land is slightly sloping to help the rain run off).  

What does all of this teach us? How can we communicate about the lack of water and the need to protect it to make people act?  

In addition to looking for adaptation solutions, States and regions across Europe are increasingly communicating against fires, the preciousness of water and heat waves. And they are not the only ones. NGOs around the globe are letting their imagination run wild to find the campaigns that will reach people. How do we show, convince people? 

Involving people 

The French government just launched a consultation to adapt the country to a temperature of +4°C, to work on anticipation: open to all till mid-September and above all targeting local authorities, companies and NGOs, it aims at setting a common trajectory, to build a real adaptation strategy. What climate should we prepare for and on what time horizon? 

A French NGO fighting against the grabbing of land and water resources has made noise these past months, with a culminating action in Sainte Soline where basins – artificial ponds are under construction. The issue? These basins, gathering water when it rains over colder days, are to be used by few over the drier days, when many are restricting their own uses. The NGOs Bassines non merci and Le peuple de l’eau (Basins, no thanks and People of the water) have just launched a summer campaign #100jourspourlessécher, involving people in actions against the grabbing of water resources. 

We have seen, again in France, that trying to privatise an already scarce resource for a few cannot be accepted anymore: France is Europe’s champ when it comes to owning individual swimming pools (nothing to be proud of). The pools and spa professionals’ federation invited owners to be responsible in using water providing tips in leaflets: is that enough? Can we here rely on people’s actions to protect a common good?[2] 

Should media do more?  

We’ve said it in the introduction: many mainstream media have started covering the topic of climate change and adaptation, with series of articles, extra papers in daily newspapers, etc. This is a good thing. A team of researcher released a study investigating if media succeed in mobilising people when communicating about climate change. The answer is no. Results are that threats seem too far away, in distance and time, the “global” nature of the threats dealt with by the media, etc. Our brains react best to “the imminence of perils here and now”. Media can also recall the “power of collective action”, accompanying fear with solutions, media playing a role in sharing more good practices / mitigation and adaptation tips. 

Nudging behaviour change 

Progressive pricing of water is an option that has led to good results: the more you consume, the more you pay. This approach was already followed now for waste generated by people. A counter example from Portugal led to numerous reactions: citizens purposefully wasted clean water because local authorities made them pay higher prices for lower consumption rates. 

Campaigns and websites focusing on the topic of water have been implemented in the past weeks. Great examples are The Drop Store – your market for a world in water crisis, and the Water Footprint Calculator. While the first markets everyday products at unaffordable rates – their true value if water is scarce, the second translates what you eat, wear, and use, into water spendings, thus linking your behaviour directly to its environmental impact. 

Behavioural change by the use of nudges is a good tool to change mentalities.  

Amplifying emotions can strengthen the message 

A campaign promoted by Sea Shepherd showed pictures of seals and turtles suffocating with plastic bags (here and here). The campaign became viral quite quickly. 

The IPCC explains how our current behaviour will impact our children (not our grandchildren or great grandchildren). 

Listed by the IPCC report, key barriers to adaptation included the lack of private sector and citizen engagement, low climate literacy, lack of political commitment, limited research and/or slow and low uptake of adaptation science, and low sense of urgency. 

EU policy has long recognised the importance of water and established a comprehensive legal framework to protect it. At the UN water conference in March, the EU announced 33 commitments for water action, which contributed to over 600 commitments collected globally at the conference. We hope that national and local political willingness will lead to more measures in place, supported by a more prominent place for good practices to be visible and replicated. National Energy and Climate Plans, which draft versions are due this month and final ones in a year from now, are the opportunity to set up dialogue platforms and set up strategies involving policymakers, NGOs, the industry and citizens! 

The author would like to extend thanks to Marta Maia, IEECP, who has shared useful links and sources feeding this opinion.

[1] Global land outlook, p. 83

[2] REGILIENCE has launched this year a maladaptation tool – swimming pools are an example of maladaptation. Adapting to heat waves by adding more pools is no solution, with devastating consequences for water and the environment (artificializing the soil, depriving it of its ability to store water to return it to biodiversity, and to store CO2). 

You can download the opinion article here.

Published for the REGILIENCE H2020 project.

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