Mark Smith on protecting people’s water from climate change

“When we think of climate change impacts,” said water expert Mark Smith, “mostly what we talk about are drought, floods, storms, sea level rise, and melting glaciers. And all those things have to do with water.”

EarthSky spoke with water expert Mark Smith, who heads the Water Programme for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature – IUCN – the world’s oldest and largest network of environmental scientists and agencies.

Mark Smith: When we think of climate change impacts … mostly what people are talking about is drought and floods and storms, and sea level rise, and melting glaciers. And all those things have to do with water.

He talked about one example: According to a 2009 study, published in the proceedings of National Academies of Sciences, human-caused climate change is linked to the rapid melting of Kilimanjaro’s glaciers, and snow cap could disappear entirely in just a few decades. More than 2 million people depend on water from the Kilmanjaro’s glaciers. Dr. Smith spoke about an IUCN project to help people in northern Tanzania better manage their water.

Mark Smith: This is in the Pangani River Basin, which has Mount Kilamanjaro at its headwaters. So this is a very iconic place for climate change. But it’s also a very typical place for Africa, where people are struggling with water security. The big problem in the Pangani is that water is running out. And climate change is making this worse.

Smith said that the IUCN project works with the Tanzanian government and grass-roots leaders of farmers and fishers to figure out how to allocate shrinking water supplies – for the small-scale farmers who need irrigation water to hydropower for the capital city Dar es Salaam. Dr. Smith described at more length the IUCN project to help the people of Tanzania better manage their water from Mount Kilimanjaro.

Mark Smith: Part of the solutions that IUCN have been working on with the government there, with other partners locally, is to first figure out how much water we actually have, and then ways of allocating it. When we work on allocating water between uses, remember, ecosystems need water too. And that’s important to remember because ecosystems provide those services that people rely on for their livelihoods, for insuring that they can withstand impacts of climate change, like wetlands and groundwater recharge. So if we don’t allocate water to within that allocation system, then we lose those services.

Dr. Smith spoke more about the importance of ‘resilience,’ in dealing with climate change impacts such as disruption to water supplies.

Mark Smith: ‘Resilience’ is a nice, friendly, English word that means we’re better at coping with problems. It also means we’re more adaptive, and work in systems that are more adaptive. Resilience comes from not just being reactive – there’s going to be a problem with drought, therefore let’s build a dam – but building around that some of the actions we need, such as making sure we have diversity in economy, in livelihood. So that when problems happen, we have alternatives. We have infrastructure that’s sustainable, dams hat work well and don’t cause so many problems downstream, for example, so that we can ensure that downstream ecosystems can be protected from the people who depend on those.

Jorge Salazar