The very real prospect of Day Zero in Egypt in under three years should focus the minds of delegates at this year’s COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, argues FIDO CEO Victoria Edwards.

For all the activist criticism of COP27, few countries understand the impact of climate change on water better than this year’s Egyptian hosts.

As leaders gather for the UN’s annual climate talks in Sharm El-Sheikh this week, on the opposite coast another Egyptian city is slowly slipping into the sea.

This ancient city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great, which has weathered fire, earthquakes and invasions in its 2,000 year history, is sinking as sea levels rise due to global warming.

These two cities, Alexandria and Sharm, perfectly illustrate the contradictory catastrophic impact of climate change. While one faces existential flooding, the other (like Egypt as a whole) is confronting the very real prospect of ‘absolute water scarcity’ within three years, caused at least in part by climate-induced drought.

Net-zero vs day zero

Absolute water scarcity is known as ‘day zero’ to you and me. The day the water runs out.

And it is ‘day zero,’ as much as net-zero, that makes this COP really matter. Because without adequate water net-zero won’t – in fact it can’t – happen.

In the words of climate expert James P. Bruce: “If climate change is the shark, water is the teeth.” Whether it is too much or too little, how well we manage the extremities of water availability will be the key to whether we survive the coming crisis.

Full credit to Egypt for recognising this and making water a key part of its COP presidency. They know we need radical action.

Due to its role in energy production, water is increasingly recognised as critical to COP’s central aim of reducing CO2 and limiting global temperature rises. This is the so-called water-energy nexus.

Around 44% of total global water withdrawals go into energy production. On the flipside, around 4 per cent of global power is spent sourcing, treating and transporting water.

Power depends on water

This makes the energy sector very susceptible to changes in water availability. Witness the cluster of stories this summer about major companies downing tools in south-western China because of drought-induced hydropower shortages, US actions to protect reservoirs in the Lower Colorado River Basin to safeguard power generation, and Norway’s warning that water shortages may stop it exporting its hydropower .

According to the International Energy Association, access to reliable water could even affect how we use the fuels and technologies we are relying on to limit global warming. Without good management, some of these could make the situation worse, while lack of adequate water supply could limit the effectiveness of others.

Desalination is a case in point. Being very energy intensive, the IEA estimates that energy use for desalination will triple by 2040.

A big part of the solution lies in reducing consumption and wastage, both of energy and of water, and as COP27 shifts its focus away from target-setting and into implementation, that means being honest and accountable.

30% of piped water is lost

Take water leakage. Worldwide it’s estimated that around 30% of all the water which is carbon-intensively produced is lost before it reaches the end user. This is partly because it’s undervalued. Finding and fixing leaks is hard and time-consuming in this context because around 90% of them never show above ground. Lots of places don’t even accurately measure their leakage losses.

That has got to change, especially as energy-intensive production like desalination expands. As the cost of water increases, the relative cost of leak detection comes down. Fixing leaks saves energy and water. It’s a win-win.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in small island communities. Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) are at the forefront of climate change. According to UNESCO, 71% face a risk of water shortage, rising to 91% in SIDS with the lowest altitude.

This is what happened on Mer (Murray) Island, north of Queensland, Australia, where minimal summer rainfall, low storage and high leakage had left the 450-strong population reliant on expensive desalination and domestic water supplies limited to just six hours per day.

In a scheme which later won the local Torres Strait Island Regional Council an award, an integrated demand management drive involving multiple new technologies cut water losses by over 90 per cent and successfully ended all water restrictions for the first time in over 20 years.

We are reaching a tipping point

With so many climate change indicators currently off track, this sort of rapid aggressive transformational change is what we need worldwide right now. In the words of Andrew Steer of the Bezos Earth Fund, the time for “incremental gradualism” is past. We are fast reaching a tipping point.

Mer Island reached a tipping point which made it act on leakage. The war in Ukraine is a tipping point which is focussing Europe on accelerating transformation to greener renewable alternatives.

As a flag to march behind, net-zero is not a tipping point. Day zero is.

Avoiding it will mean working together like never before. Speaking with one voice politically, technologically and socially. Putting aside ideological differences, moving away from proprietary solutions and sharing data freely for the common good.

I hope you’re listening COP27.

Victoria Edwards will be speaking at COP27 on Thursday November 10 (Green Zone, 10am) as part of the panel on Future Business Goals & Smart Cities