Last Friday, I attended the first Pan-European Water and Sanitation Safety Planning and Extreme Weather Events (WSSP) conference, organized by International Water Conferences that also hosts the Amsterdam International Water Week events. The aim of the conference was to bring together the knowledge of scientists, utility operators, policymakers and civil society representatives working in the field of climate change and public water supply, with a specific focus on the impacts on drinking water and sanitation systems.
Because of this narrow focus of the conference, the presentations offered much in-depth insight into the vulnerabilities of public water supply and sanitation systems to the impacts of climate change. There were presentations on the impacts of floods on public water supply systems, the impacts of droughts on public health, the impact of heat stress on soil and drinking water temperature, and on the capacities of existing infrastructural networks to cope with the impacts of climate change.
What particularly struck me was that all presenters applied an integral perspective to their topic. Looking at the cascading effects of floods, Zozan Vojinovic highlighted the differential impacts of floods, from traffic jams in the first couple of hours to an electricity breakdown in the days thereafter. While Alida Alves underscored the need to integrate green and grey infrastructures to absorb the impacts of a flood, Jeroen van Leuken also warned against the potential negative effects of new adaptation concepts like wadi’s and fountains on public health. In this context, keynote speaker David Wilkes called for the incorporation of all affected interests in developing resilient adaptation strategies. The conference interestingly ended with a regulators forum, in which new adaptation planning concepts were discussed.
Obstacles to an integrated approach
That an integrated approach to climate change adaptation is difficult to establish in practice was outlined by Francisco Cubillo, who explained that dealing with the short-term impacts of floods often requires a different type of response than dealing with the long-term and incremental effects of drought. KWR researcher Claudia Agudelo-Vera pointed to the existing fragmented governance structure as a challenge for integral adaptation governance; while heat stress directly affects the drinking water sector, competences to provide solutions to combat heat stress often lie elsewhere, at municipal planning departments.
KWR and the BINGO project
My own presentation nicely fitted in this discussion. The H2020 BINGO (Bringing INnovation to onGOing water management – A better future under climate change) project aims to improve our knowledge of the short-term and regional impacts of climate change and to develop adaptation strategies to deal with these impacts. Together with my KWR colleague Henk-Jan van Alphen and in close collaboration with our local research partners in the project, we analyzed the policy and governance context of six European research sites that are central in the project. This analysis demonstrated that in developing adaptation strategies, regions tend to focus on historical risks and overlook new risks posed by climate change. This reinforces a sectoral approach to climate change adaptation. Collaboration and learning across regions and countries may help counteract this trend. It is my belief that the WSSP conference provided a good step in this direction.