Climate change and water: Upside down

Redesign the water sequence to bring equity in supply

By IR Rob Roggema
Published: Sunday 22 March 2020
Water illustration Upside down. Illustration: Ritika Bohra

The supply of water for agriculture, drinking water and nature depends on human interventions, and increasingly climate change. The more humans intervene in the natural water system, the harder it gets to arrange sufficient water for basic functions. At the same time, the water system requires a higher flexibility as a result of changing rainfall patterns. These two contradictory movements end up in less water being available for people and nature.

Thus, the consumption ladder firstly provides water to people that have always gained access to water easily, followed water for agricultural purposes, then the people that do not have easy access being the poorer part of the population, and ultimately water available for nature.

To increase resilience, the consumption ladder needs to be put on its head. Imagine nature itself will be the first entry point for the water that is available. Nature itself will shape the landscape, form the systems so that surpluses of water can be stored in the landscape.

By increasing the water storage capacity, large amounts of water can be embraced as a resource, instead of being discharged into the sea. Being captured in reservoirs and canals, water can be used first by people that need it most — those who work in the fields and are dependent on water in their direct environment.

This water, once it has been used, can be cleaned to a level that is suitable for use in agriculture, in rice paddies, fish farming or the growth of crops. The water that remains is suitable to be adopted in an artificial system, be cleaned and treated as drinking water for an urban population.

Turning the Water Supply Sequence upside down in this nature-based way serves everyone and creates a more resilient system, which can deal with higher fluctuations in rainfall, prevents flooding and provides fresh water to all uses in an area.

But the coming of age of this thinking is not enough to implement it. The way to achieve a great outcome for everyone works best through a design-led approach.

The magic of design is that unforeseen and uncalculatable outcomes can be imagined, and new solutions can be envisaged. This gives rise to further explorations in practice and testing of these alternatives.

This is often underestimated in the technical, engineering-led system we operate. This can help us transform the way we respond to current water problems, often caused by the solutions of the past.

Designing unexpected futures is the only opportunity we have to turn the Water Supply Sequence upside down. This implies that it is also the only chance we have to create a more resilient future for all in terms of access to water. This will also reduce the inequality between the rich and powerful that often have a monopoly over access to clean water.

This was first published in Down To Earth's print edition (dated 16-31 March, 2020)

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