Juan Carlos Villagrán de León, researcher at the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Safety
Right to left: Ger Bergkamp, IUCN; Wolfgang Kron, Munich Re; Juan Carlos Villagrán de Léon, UNU-EHS ;Holger Hoff, PIK; Dirk Reinhard, Munich Re Foundation

Summary – World Water Week Seminar 2006: Climate and water-related risks

2005 – The year when climate change became reality

Are the strategies for coping with climate- and water-related risks good

Man-made climate change will have a tremendous impact on the water cycle and on water-related natural disasters. Four international experts presented their views on how climate change will impact water-related risks from the human, environmental and economic perspective.

The year 2005 saw record-breaking losses due to hurricanes in the United States, the Caribbean as well as to floods in other regions of the world (such as India, Romania and the Alps). The seminar summarised the implications of water- and climate-related risks for humans, the environment and the economy and provided an overview of the strategies for coping with these risks, especially with regard to developing countries. It focused on questions such as: What will be the frequency and intensity of natural disasters in the future? What impact will they have on the people concerned as well as on overall economic and insured losses?

Number of disasters and losses increase
“2005 was clearly a record year in history”, stated Wolfgang Kron, Head of Hydrological Risks in the Geo Risks Research unit at Munich Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies. Not only Hurricane Katrina but also other events (for example in India or Europe) showed the vulnerability of humans and the economy towards the increasing strength of natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and droughts. Whereas events like Katrina caused about 1,500 casualties and US$ 60bn in insured losses, other events like the 2005 floods in China left nearly three million people homeless but caused very few insured losses. In the last ten years, the number of floods doubled compared to the years 1960–1969. Nearly 169 major flood loss events occurred worldwide in 2005. Overall, economic and insured losses in connection with weather-related great natural disasters increased, due partly to higher insured values and a greater density of population in disaster-prone areas. However, climate change plays a key role. “We must establish a culture of coping with risks”, said Wolfgang Kron. “Appropriate risk reduction requires better partnerships between public authorities, industry and insurance companies as well as the people affected”, he concluded.

Adaptation is necessary
In addition to natural disasters, climate change and water-related risks will threaten food security, health and economic development and hence several of the UN Millennium Development Goals. “These risks are unevenly distributed across the globe, with a number of hotspots”, explained Holger Hoff from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. The hotspots such as northern India or Sub-Saharan Africa lie mostly in developing counties not identical with the hotspots of greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries. “The latter must assume responsibility for helping developing countries do adapt”, said Hoff. The most important point is that climate adaptation becomes part of integrated water resources management (IWRM).

Struggling with poverty life hinders long-term activities
Juan Carlos Villagrán de León, researcher at the United Nations University Institute for Environement and Human Safety, focused on disaster preparedness strategies in Central America. In that region, several water-related natural disasters in the past caused severe damage and even pushed entire countries years back in their economic development. However, local risk management is still missing on a broad basis. It became clear that poverty reduces the capability to implement appropriate risk-management strategies. “It is difficult to convince someone to take long-term measures if meeting the day-to-day needs is the key priority”, said Villagrán de León. Therefore, the key is to cooperate on an international, national and local basis to provide the necessary financial and technical means to support day-to-day operation of risk-management schemes adapted to the limitations of local communities. Reporting on the “how not to do” instead of “the how to do” would often support this process.

Environmental and economic benefits from environmental protection
The fact that human well-being and is related to ecosystem services was presented by Ger Bergkamp, Head of the Water Programme at IUCN, Geneva. “Economic losses from natural disasters in the 1990s could have been reduced by US$ 280bn if US$ 40bn had been invested in preventive measures, including ecosystem services”, said Bergkamp. This fact is underlined by figures from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which estimated that intact wetlands were worth double the value of the same land converted for the purposes of intensive farming and that intact mangroves were nearly five times the value of using the same area for shrimp farming. To prove the value of ecosystems in combatting floods, droughts and landslides, he suggested establishing demonstration sites to build trust and reliability in investments in ecosystem services. “It is time to act now”, Bergkamp conluded.

Key messages
After the four presentations and a very lively discussion among the over 120 experts attending the event, it became clear that current strategies to cope with climate and water-related risks need to be adjusted. The following messages were concluded:

– Awareness plays a key role. However, it is also important that those parties (society/individuals, governments, etc.) understand their individual responsibility in order to follow the right strategies in order to adapt to climate and water-related risks.

– Society needs to be educated about future long-term risks related to climate change in order put the right pressure on politicians. In addition, it is necessary to help people understand links, for example between upstream and downstream measures. Furthermore, long-term goals rather than short-term goals are needed.

– Some adaptation strategies are already in place. However, more has to be done. Investments in these strategies (e.g. ecosystem protection) have to create more local benefits.

“Climate and water-related risks still plays a minor role on the ‘water agenda’ of scientists and decision-makers”, said Dirk Reinhard, Vice Chair of the Munich Re Foundation, who chaired the session. The effects are still underestimated by many stakeholders, such as local governments. And the effects are not yet fully understood. Only if everybody understands their individual responsibility, appropriate risk-management strategies can be developed. However, that also means that each individual has an important role to play in reducing risks, and they can only success if the necessary financial resources are available.