Adapting water management to climate change

Published on January 1, 2009 | Author: Julie Wilk, Hans Bertil Wittgren

Societies have always had to cope with variable natural condi- tions. This coping with nature often implies adaptation of whole societies, or at least a large fraction of their technologies, to actual water conditions. Nomadic people migrate seasonally to find water and grazing for their herds. Since ancient times, agricultural civilizations have invented techniques for water storage, transfer and irrigation. Embankments such as levees and dikes are constructed, or lakes lowered, to protect agricultural land, cities or whole countries from flooding.


It is a demanding task for any society to cope with historically known variations in rainfall frequency and intensity, river runoffs, and fluctuating sea levels. When factoring in population growth and increased urbanisation, often in flood-prone areas along coasts or in river valleys, the task becomes even more difficult, particularly in poor regions of the world.


Good water management is a much broader issue than supply of freshwater to thirsty populations. Ecosystems and biodiversity, agriculture and food security, land use and forestry, human health and sanitation, settlements and infrastructure, industry and energy all depend on good water management. The primary purpose of this policy brief is to suggest options that promote water management strategies that are already viable in terms of coping with present problems, and which will become even more urgent when projected climate change impacts are taken into account. Such strategies are sometimes referred to as ‘no regret’ strategies, meaning that they are good investments even when recognising the large uncertainties regarding the future climate.

As a background, we present a general overview of observed and projected impacts of climate change on water resources, as summarised by IPCC,7 and an overview of the key concepts of adaptation and vulnerability to climate change, including specific examples of adaptation strategies now in practice. However, it is not enough to point out ‘good examples’. Good examples all work in local contexts that influence and dictate their success. The sustainability of such examples, including their potential to disperse to other regions, is often hampered by barriers of different kinds. Overcoming barriers may be the most important function of policies, whether they are local or global. But modifying successful adaptation ex- amples to local pre-conditions – whether cultural, institutional or climatic – is also essential. Therefore, some observations regarding barriers to implementation, maintenance and diffusion of adaptation measures are presented.

Wilk, J. and Wittgren, H.B. (eds). 2009. Adapting Water Management to Climate Change. Swedish Water House policy Brief nr. 7. SIWI.

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