“Water, in its various occurrences, management and uses, is an essential component of human development and is a crosscutting factor in current development priorities driving Ghana’s goal of achieving sustainable development” – Ghana National Water Policy, 2007 (p.6).
The availability of this indispensable resource, however, now depends heavily on climate change. In fact, experts predict that by the Year 2100 there would be increased water availability in moist tropics and high latitudes, with decreasing water availability and increasing drought in mid-latitudes and semi-arid low latitudes.
Affirming the above assertion in a paper on Water Safety, Climate Change and Integrated Water Resources Management that was presented at Mole XXI, Ms Adwoa Paintsil of the Water Resources Commission (WRC) observed that “the changes in global climate that are occurring as a result of the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will affect patterns of freshwater availability and will alter the frequencies of floods and droughts.”
The attention of the organizers of Mole XXI was engaged not only by the mere availability of water in future. The quality of water that will be available was very much of concern too. This was because climate model simulations and other analyses suggest that total flows, probabilities of extreme high or low flow conditions, seasonal runoff regimes, groundwater-surface water interactions and water quality characteristics could all be significantly affected by climate change over the course of the coming decades.
Ways in which water quality is impacted
In 2008, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is a scientific intergovernmental body tasked with evaluating the risk of climate change caused by human activity, stated that “observational records and climate projections provide abundant evidence that freshwater resources are vulnerable and have the potential to be strongly impacted by climate change, with wide ranging consequences for human societies and eco-systems.”
Heavy rainfall and flooding are direct results of climate change; of course, catalysed by human actions. Rising temperatures, facilitated by CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, are also warming the globe leading to the melting of ice and glaciers.
The ultimate effect of these climatic conditions is the contamination of water sources – both surface and groundwater. According to Ms Paintsil, flooding can affect water quality, as large volumes of water can transport contaminants – such as chemicals, heavy metals or other hazardous substances, either from landfills, or from chemicals already in the environment like pesticides – into water bodies and also overload storm and wastewater systems. And, where streamflow and lake levels fall, there will be less dilution of the pollutants.
Additionally, sea level rise may also affect freshwater quality by increasing the salinity of coastal rivers and bays and causing saltwater intrusion, and movement of saline water into fresh ground water resources in coastal regions.
On the other hand, when drought conditions persist and groundwater reserves are depleted, the residual water that remains is often of inferior quality. This is a result of the leakage of saline or contaminated water from the land surface, the confining layers, or the adjacent water bodies that have highly concentrated quantities of contaminants.
Also, the health of a water body, such as a river, is dependent upon its ability to effectively self-purify through biodegradation, which is hindered when there is a reduced amount of dissolved oxygen. When water warms its ability to hold oxygen decreases, and this can adversely affect different inhabitants of the ecosystem due to a species' sensitivity to temperature. For instance, certain species of fish could find temperatures too warm and migrate to more northern or higher altitude locations where water is cooler.
An increase in water temperatures can also lead to flourishing microbial populations, which can have a negative impact on human health. Generally, higher temperatures and changes in water supply and quality could affect recreational use of lakes and rivers or productivity of freshwater fisheries.
Adapting to climate change to mitigate impact on water quality
The poor of the world are generally the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate variability and change on water, but they often have a low capacity to cope with such impacts. Indeed, even without climate change, Ghana, like most developing countries, is confronted with serious water problems.
It is worthy to note that the effects of climate change will not always be negative; new business opportunities are likely to emerge. Therefore, opportunities exist for innovative approaches to financing the required coupling of investments in water infrastructure and environmental protection.
Ms Paintsil noted that the political and institutional dimension is a most critical element in coping with climate variability and climate change from a water resources management perspective. In her opinion, therefore, the world's political leadership, with the support of international financing agencies, should invest in capacity building in the global South to help them enhance their adaptive capacities.
Indeed, a number of institutional and organizational gaps persist in the global South and the resolution of these difficulties require effective planning for the future that takes cognizance of financial needs and other factors like infrastructure, economic and human capacity, socio-political systems and environmental awareness.
The Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) initiative must be embraced in addition to putting in place both structural and non-structural flood protection measures like dams, flood control reservoirs, i.e. constructing reservoirs where the excess flood waters can be stored, and then released as a controlled flow to help alleviate the flood problem by attenuating flood peaks, and dikes.
“It is prudent to begin planning for changes that can be foreseen and to build resilience to deal effectively with the increased uncertainty arising from the potential, but as yet unpredictable impacts of climate change. Nevertheless, some types of changes can be foreseen with relatively high confidence,” Ms Paintsil noted.
Beyond that, private sectors that traditionally have not concerned themselves specifically with water resources and its management should be made aware of the effects of climate change within the broader water-related sphere in the near future.
Ben Ampomah, Executive Secretary, Water Resources Commission, warns that “the consequences of climate change may alter the reliability of current water management systems and water-related infrastructure. It is very likely that hydrological characteristics will change in the future.”
On this score, he suggests that there is a need to improve modelling of climate changes related to the hydrological cycle at scales relevant to decision making.
Participants at Mole XXI acknowledged the effects of climate change on the WASH sector and pledged to ensure that the appropriate adaptation and mitigation measures will be employed by civil society.
Participants issued a twelve-point communiqué, making various proposals. One of them was that Government and civil society should actively promote rainwater harvesting as one of the practical adaptation options in the water supply, agriculture and construction industries, among others. This could help in minimizing over-reliance on ground and surface water resources.
Also, Government should engage in consultation and encourage active participation of stakeholders at all levels in the WASH sector on the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) Compact to get the maximum benefits and impacts and also ensure that commitments reflected in it include efforts at minimizing the negative impacts of climate change.