UN Climate Change Conference COP28 at Expo City Dubai on December 8, 2023. Photo by COP28 / Anthony Fleyhan used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In case you blinked and missed the action on water scarcity at COP28, FIDO CEO Victoria Edwards took a look to find out what happened to avert the part of the climate crisis that rarely made the headlines.

COP28 sure looked like a pretty glitzy affair, didn’t it? The golden dome of Expo City projecting light and hope into the sky. Whatever the ultimate success or shortcomings of the global stocktake agreement, the UAE put on a good show.

And, being Dubai, there was plenty for its 70,000 guests to do on their day off. Like a bit of après-ski. Because despite external temperatures cracking the flags at up to 50C in summer, Dubai is home to ‘snow in the desert’, an indoor ski extravaganza boasting snow park, penguins, and even Santa.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Dubai has increasingly decent sustainability credentials that has put it on a good trajectory and all credit to them. But doesn’t ‘snow in the desert’ feel like a sad metaphor for everything that’s wrong with mankind’s general attitude to water? A city built in a region which gets less than four inches of rain a year is effectively boiling seawater for a fake glacier while our natural cryosphere is vanishing at an unprecedented rate. Joni Mitchell anyone?

Despite the optics, COP28 was not a disaster for water, although you’d be forgiven for missing it with all the focus on emissions. So, as the first big test of the world’s commitment after the UN’s landmark Water Conference in New York in March, I thought I’d do a quick round-up of things you might have missed. Reasons to be cheerful, you might say.

1. Global recognition of the need for transnational co-operation to avoid water conflict.
Recognising how key water security is to global security, France and Kazakhstan announced a #OneWaterSummit to be held in New York next September, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s high-level session. This is significant. Transboundary waters account for 60 per cent of the world’s freshwater flows and more than 3 billion people depend on them. The potential for poor governance to cause geopolitical conflicts is a fear I hear from officials the world over. The number of conflicts triggered by water has gone up 500% in the last decade according to Pacific Institute figures.

2 Quantifying the interconnectedness of water and climate goals
Or more specifically, the criticality of water in achieving the #ParisAgreement. The United Nations started COP28 with some pretty interesting early numbers showing for the first time just how key water will be to the success of the green energy transition. It was an estimate of how much water will be needed to make things like green hydrogen compared to say liquid biofuels or the electrification of light duty vehicles. This is pretty vital information for navigating our transition to sustainability effectively. As Professor Peteri Taalas of the UN-Water Expert Group put it: “Achieving climate goals is fundamentally dependent on sustainable water management just as achieving water goals in fundamentally dependent on stabilising the global climate through success in reducing greenhouse gases.” The full and final figures will be presented at the Bonn climate conference next June.

3 Investment in water infrastructure to prevent day zero
A key outcome was several commitments to significant investments in water infrastructure. An estimated 30% of world piped water is lost or unaccounted for within pipeline networks and represents not just a huge waste of expensively sourced, treated and pumped resource it also unnecessarily contributes to emissions and the ongoing degradation of our natural world. In some areas the amount of this so-called non-revenue water is 60% of the water input volume. At COP28, EUR 42 million in funding was announced for the Urban Water Catalyst Initiative (UWCI) to accelerate urban water utility turnarounds worldwide and mobilise finance for performance improvement. Between them Water Equity and the UAE will stump up another USD $250 million of funding to enhance the coping capacity and spur the acceleration of technical water security solutions and innovation in vulnerable communities.

4 Action to improve freshwater environments
The water cycle is the ultimate interconnected system, so a healthy water cycle needs to include healthy rivers and wetlands. Not only are they essential for climate resilience, particularly as sources and flood plains, improving them will reverse nature loss and enhance all our lives. More than new 30 country members joined the Freshwater Challenge at COP28. The Challenge, launched at the UN Conference in March, commits them to protect and restore 30 percent of the Earth’s degraded freshwater ecosystems by 2030 – that’s 300,000km of degraded rivers and 350m hectares of wetland.

5 The mobilisation of business leaders to accelerate solutions
There was mounting evidence that more and more forward-thinking corporate and business leaders are prepared to use their clout and resources to move the world forward towards a more sustainable future. Under the auspices of the World Economic Forum, an alliance of CEOs representing $4 trillion in revenues and 12 million employees used COP28 to call for transformative policies and actions for the benefit of society, public health and the global economy. I really believe corporates like Microsoft are playing a potentially transformative role in the climate struggle by actively and collaboratively enabling the use of proven technologies like ours in order to accelerate overall progress towards climate goals. Private enterprise has access to resources and skills with which to assess and de-risk the adoption and scaling of the right solutions that many utilities and communities do not. The outcomes are environmental, economic and social.

So that’s my take on COP for 2024. As Joni so rightly said: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?”

Well, I think a water-secure future is still achievable – just. With collective action and a shared commitment to responsible water management, we can save our hydrosphere from a future where we can only ski in glacier museums like Ski Dubai, as much fun as they look.