Three ways water utilities are making progress on climate action

Feb. 2, 2024
With water becoming an increasingly relevant part about climate talks, Xylem's Austin Alexander highlights how COP28 showed three areas where the water sector can move the needle.

Bookended by major events, 2023 began with the UN Water Conference in March and culminated in COP28 in December.

Most recently, COP28 in Dubai coincided with the halfway point of the Paris Agreement, the legally binding international treaty on climate action. With average global temperatures already hitting 1.8°C above pre-industrial levels and future projections stark, the negotiations could not escape the reality that progress is significantly off track.

The sense of urgency led to a new level of focused, open problem-solving, renewing optimism in the power of collective action to drive progress on adaptation and mitigation.

Water is also becoming an increasingly important part of the conversation. The text of the global stock take recognized the “critical role of protecting, conserving and restoring water systems and water-related ecosystems in delivering climate adaptation benefits and co-benefits, while ensuring social and environmental safeguards.”

Policymakers are realizing what water operators already know: the success of our societies and economies depends on our ability to manage water more sustainably.

As we look beyond COP28 and pick up the pace on climate action, here are three areas where the water sector can move the needle.

1. Drive progress with cross-sector collaboration

Private sector companies are talking more about their vulnerabilities and the importance of water in their value chain. Companies are setting water stewardship targets, focusing on their own water footprint, as well as how they can better support the watersheds in which they operate.

COP28 provided a forum for many more conversations about how we manage water consumption by industry, from agriculture to data centers and AI use.

Water is increasingly being recognized for its essentiality to business resilience which opens the door for more collaboration between industry, technology providers, governments, and water utilities. Continuing this cross-sector collaboration and supporting major water users to create resilient, sustainable water systems is vital.

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2. Push water up the agenda by elevating utility voices

Collaboration and commitments will not be effective unless we hear from a critical voice at the table – water utilities. They, after all, are the ones doing the essential work to keep the taps running.

Water was much higher up the agenda at COP28. At the Water Pavilion in the Blue Zone, there were significant discussions about mitigation, adaptation, and how we can accelerate the water sector to net zero.

As the impact of climate change continues to be felt through water-related crises, water must be at the top of the agenda at COP29. By elevating the utility voice at these critical global forums, we can ensure action on water is realistic and effective.

3. Use climate action to advance sustainable development

The Paris Agreement is not the only global framework hitting the halfway point. In 2023, we reached half-time on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals including Goal 6 - safe drinking water and sanitation for all. In both agreements, the second half is critical to regain lost ground.

Positively, the agreements are not mutually exclusive. By sharing approaches, we can scale progress toward both. This is particularly relevant for the developing world, where we can harness the water sector’s global experience to help developing countries leapfrog to sustainable, efficient water systems that can affordably serve communities.

Financing was a big discussion point at COP28. By connecting that conversation to how we can arm developing countries with best-practice approaches and technologies, we can ensure that more people have secure access to safe water without increasing costs or emissions.

As the countdown to COP29 in Azerbaijan begins, it is essential that the water sector, industry, and governments worldwide capitalize on the momentum from 2023 and continue to collaborate toward water security.

About the Author

Austin Alexander

Austin Alexander is vice president of sustainability and social impact at Xylem.