Water in (climate) change: Approaches for a more sustainable use of water

Flooded landscapes, villages and towns on one side, parched fields and rivers on the other. The impact of climate change is causing the water cycle to become increasingly unbalanced. What to do?


The Earth’s climate is changing ever faster. Globally, the decade 2011-2020 was already 1.1 °C warmer than the pre-industrial average 1850-1900, according to the Federal Office for Meteorology and Climatology MeteoSwiss. The global mean temperature is now higher than at any time in the past 2000 years. The consequences: extreme weather events such as heavy rain, hail, storms, heat waves and droughts are increasing worldwide, while ice sheets are melting, sea levels are rising, ocean currents are changing and oceans are acidifying. The effects on humans, animals, ecosystems and the economy can be dramatic. 

Switzerland is heating up twice as much as the global average

According to MeteoSwiss, the past decade (2013-2022) was 2.5°C warmer in Switzerland than the average for the years 1871-1900. This means that Switzerland is now heating up more than twice as much as the global average. One of the reasons: Switzerland is not by the sea. While oceans absorb much of the extra heat, land masses are less able to store it. Moreover, warming in the northern hemisphere is increasing towards the North Pole. The effects have made themselves felt for a long time: according to MeteoNews AG, many crops suffered as a result of the drought in the summer of 2022 and the fodder harvest for the winter came to a virtual standstill. Regionally - especially in the Geneva basin, along the Jura as well as in the Vaud Jura and in Ticino - there was an acute water shortage. The level of Lake Lugano was lower than ever. River levels were also very low and water temperatures reached problematic record levels for fish. 


Swiss temperature since 1864. Each year has a different colour. Years coded in red are warmer, blue colder than the 1961-1990 average. (Source: MeteoSchweiz)

Water - more precious than ever

Climate change is upsetting the water cycle. All over the world. It is obvious that we have to take countermeasures. But how do we do this? Possible solutions are offered by the new Global Commission on the Economics of Water in the first World Water Development Report, which it presented this year on 17 March, just a few days before the UN Water Conference in New York. The first step would be to establish the global water cycle as a global common good that must be protected jointly and in the interest of all. “For the first time in human history, we can no longer count on precipitation - the source of all fresh water”, explains Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Co-Chair of the Commission. “We are changing the entire global water cycle”.


It can only be done together

Current, largely local approaches to water management fail to recognise that countries are interconnected and interdependent. The Commission regards stronger networking at regional, national and global level as an essential measure in the current decade. It proposes an outcome-based approach that reflects the many roles that water plays in human well-being and mobilises all stakeholders. “We need new economic thinking to shift from a reactive fixation to proactive design of sustainable economies”, says Mariana Mazzucato, Professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London and Co-Chair of the Commission. 

Together, companies, the public sector and other stakeholders should exploit existing opportunities. These include: 

  • the expansion of fresh water storage systems;
  • improved maintenance of water pipes to prevent losses due to leaks;
  • developing the urban circular economy (in particular by recycling industrial and municipal wastewater);
  • reducing the water footprint in manufacturing;
  • converting agriculture to precision irrigation;
  • less water-intensive crops and more drought-resistant agriculture
  • Reducing subsidies for agriculture that encourage excessive water use.


Radical Collaboration

Working together to tackle the global water crisis: this is also the aim of the Open Call for Accelerating Water Action, launched during the opening day of the UN Water Conference. The call is led by the CEO Water Mandate, a partnership between the UN Global Compact and the Pacific Institute to promote the responsible use of water in companies. More than fifty of the world’s largest companies joined the call during the conference. They commit to working to improve water resources in their operations and supply chains and to collaborate across sectors to achieve positive impacts in at least one hundred priority water catchment areas by 2030. Jason Morrison, President of the Pacific Institute and Head of the CEO Water Mandate: “The Open Call mobilises the business sector in a crucial new way - through radical collaboration”.


Two current examples from Switzerland

Cooperating, networking, pooling knowledge, sharing knowledge - this is also the basis of the work of the new Hydrology and Climate Impacts in Mountain Regions Research Group of the Research Centre CERC, as well as the national early warning system for drought, ordered by the Federal Council in May 2022.

The Hydrology and Climate Impacts Research Group quantifies the hazard potential and water availability in mountain regions. This includes assessing climate impacts on water and assessing climate extremes in mountain regions with a focus on the Alps. The researchers are for instance investigating the positive effects of storage on water scarcity and providing data for the development of emergency plans for extreme situations. 

The national early warning system for drought is intended to facilitate planning in terms of water availability. By 2025, it is to provide up-to-date information and forecasts for the whole of Switzerland and thus enable prophylactic measures to be taken. This involves, for example, the irrigation of agricultural crops, planning for alternatives to Rhine navigation or moving fish to more water-rich rivers or streams as a precautionary measure. 


We can all do something

Now it’s your turn! Do you know of any exciting initiatives against the water crisis? What are your ideas to reduce water consumption - locally, regionally or globally? Are you working on a project yourself that could inspire others? We look forward to your feedback in our LinkedIn group. Simply post in our Pioneer Community and mention Samira Lütscher

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