Climate Action

Our relationship with water is political, says this climate scientist

One in four cities, representing $4 trillion in economic activity, are already water stressed.

One in four cities, representing $4 trillion in economic activity, are already water stressed. Image: REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Fresh Water

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Climate change is shifting our relationship with water, climate scientist and author Giulio Boccaletti says, bringing politics and power into the equation.
  • Water has become almost invisible to many people in developed countries – we need to rethink our management of this precious resource.
  • Better water management needs to be incorporated into countries' economic and societal strategies.

“The exercise of managing water is ultimately an exercise of power. Somebody needs to build something somewhere in somebody's backyard to control and manage water resources. And [with that] some will benefit and some will lose,” says climate scientist and author Giulio Boccaletti.

Climate change is shifting our relationship with water, bringing power and politics into fundamental human rights issues of access and management, he argues. And as droughts and floods become more commonplace and widespread in a warming planet, the way we think about water as a resource is becoming more pressing.

Indeed, as the World Economic Forum’s Circular Water Cities report highlights, one in four cities, representing $4 trillion in economic activity, are already water stressed.

However, for most people in developed countries water has almost become invisible, Boccaletti says. We are so used to it being there when we need it, and it has become so embedded in our daily lives, that we no longer see it.

World Water Day and the UN Water Conference provide an important opportunity to further political agreement on the best management of this crucial resource to ensure equitable and sustainable development.

The following is an edited transcript of Boccaletti’s talk at the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Meetings.

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What are some of the biggest challenges around water today?

Giulio Boccaletti: Maybe the biggest challenge above all others is exactly that – people don't know what the challenges are – that water is sort of invisible for the vast majority of people, certainly those who live in developed countries.

Ten thousand years ago, we decided to stand still. We became sedentary in a world of moving water. And, ever since, our collective life on the landscape has been shaped by our relationship with water, which is essentially the agent of the climate system on the landscape. It's the most powerful force that shapes the landscape on behalf of the climate system and transforms the world around us. The floods, the droughts, the storms that power the atmosphere and fall on our heads – all of these things are expressions of water and the expression of the climate system. And for 10,000 years, we've been in this relationship with this giant.

And then, about a century ago, the promise of the modernist world was to separate us, to emancipate us from nature, and we've re-plumbed the planet. We turned the hydrology of the planet into hydraulics to support industrialization. And, in doing so, we created an illusion of control. So that today nobody really thinks about water all that much. But that illusion is breaking, and that's the biggest challenge today. It's breaking and things are changing. The climate is on the move and water is changing with it. And we need to relearn what our relationship with water should be.

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What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

Why do we need to redefine our relationship with water?

Giulio Boccaletti: As the climate system is changing, water resurfaces – behind the levees, behind the dams, inside the canals, it's moving again. And we've seen that [in summer 2022], the spectacular droughts that have hit Europe or the catastrophic floods that have hit places like Pakistan and South Korea.

As this happens the biggest risk is that we end up believing that the problem is simply an engineering issue, that somebody somewhere will take care of it. It's just a matter of spending money. But 10,000 years of history show us that, in fact, the fundamental question about managing water is political – it is the question of what a home should look like. And that is a quintessentially, intrinsically political question that cannot be dealt with just through engineering. It requires participation and debate, and politics.

We need to learn once again how to engage politically with questions of landscape, with questions of who decides what our home looks like and who gets to exercise power on the landscape. Because that, in a nutshell, is what dealing with water means.

90% of the world had access to safe drinking water in 2020, but that figure dipped to just 57% in Oceania and 65% in sub-Saharan Africa.
90% of the world had access to safe drinking water in 2020, but that figure dipped to just 57% in Oceania and 65% in sub-Saharan Africa. Image: Statista.

How can we make access to water more equitable?

Giulio Boccaletti: The exercise of managing water is ultimately an exercise of power. Somebody needs to build something somewhere in somebody's backyard to control and manage water resources. And [with that] some will benefit and some will lose.

The costs will be borne disproportionately by those with the least power. We've seen this in the dramatic droughts that hit the Horn of Africa in summer 2022 – 20 million people with essentially no political agency unable to mobilize their communities to transform the landscape in ways that protects them. The same has happened in Pakistan. It's the powerless that get hit by this.

So, yes, it's a matter of human rights. And it's true that we should frame the question of water as a question of access. But it's more than that. It's also a question of exercising sovereignty over the landscape. Achieving water security is much more than having access to water to drink, it's about water that serves the purposes of development and of social cohesion.

And in that sense, the most powerful instrument that we have to have a just and equitable outcome is political emancipation. It is the ability of people to be citizens in the management of the landscape in which they live.

A bar chart showing water withdrawals per capita worldwide as of 2020, by country.
Growing populations and the climate crisis are putting increased pressure on limited water resources. Image: Statista.

How can citizens participate in water management?

Giulio Boccaletti: We have to recognize that the world of water doesn't live in the abstract. It's embedded in a set of issues around welfare, economic development, social equity and so forth. So the key here is to make environmental decision-making and decision-making about the resources of a nation and the resources of a community part of the broader political agenda.

Now, how does that happen? Well, in countries where people have political agency as citizens, then it's a matter of incorporating the environment and water resources in the political processes and building institutions that allow the state or the governance of the landscape to recognize the problems with water specifically.

We improve the governance of water, not by creating special governance of water, but by embedding water in the economic and social strategy of countries.

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