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UAE focus on water is a timely statement of intent

A paper on water scarcity is a significant effort to move the agenda forward

A farmer walks on a dried lakebed in Turkey. The UAE's water paper says 1.8 billion people live under conditions of absolute water scarcity Reuters/Umit Bektas
A farmer walks on a dried lakebed in Turkey. The UAE's water paper says 1.8 billion people live under conditions of absolute water scarcity

The much-anticipated 28th Conference of the Parties opens this week in Dubai. Over two weeks, world leaders will gather to take stock and to conclude a course of further action – all being well. 

The meeting is expected to see divisions over the velocity of phasing out fossil fuels but the host country is likely to emphasise climate finance and call for more pragmatism in energy policy. 

In the run-up, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs has published a discussion paper entitled “Ripple Effect: Water Scarcity – the Hidden Threat to Global Security and Prosperity”. 

The paper comes just in time. With it, the UAE government has placed water firmly on the agenda. This is significant. It not only demonstrates the growing importance of water in climate change debates, but it also moves the action agenda forward from mitigation to adaptation. 

Previous Cop meetings have emphasised agendas to reduce carbon emissions. Most notably, article 2 of the Paris Declaration of Cop21 in 2015 mandated industrialised economies to reduce their emissions to reach the 1.5 degree goal by 2050. However, the industrialised countries have shown that reducing carbon emissions is highly political. 

Logo, Text

Take, for example, Germany’s immensely contested process to introduce new heating legislation. Elsewhere, right-leaning governments such as in the UK have slowed down de-carbonisation policies because it is taking longer than hoped to substantially reduce carbon emissions. 

In fact, such green policies have led to a swing to the right across Western democracies due to the sheer cost. Once rising stars, Green parties are now expected to lose seats in coming elections. 

Americans are also hyper-divided across bipartisan lines. If the White House is taken by a Republican in January 2025, many of the current administration’s climate policies are expected to be scrapped. 

America and Europe are crippled by high spending commitments to de-carbonise and are also pre-occupied by the war in Ukraine. Moreover, economic growth has been tepid in many European countries.

It is unlikely that we can expect “green chequebook diplomacy”, especially since 2024 will see elections in the US, the UK and Europe.  

The UAE can lead the way

The UAE paper seeks to move forward from this gloomy scenario. It accepts that carbon emissions are triggering potentially catastrophic climate change and temperature rises but points out that most people on the planet will first feel the effects via water availability. 

Already, the paper reminds us, four billion people are exposed to water scarcity for at least one month per year. 1.8 billion live under conditions of absolute water scarcity, and about 5 billion people live in water-stressed environments. 

In addition, pollution through household and industry waste and agricultural run-off has reduced the availability of safe water. If water is the first real victim of climate change, why not focus efforts on better management and finance? 

If the UAE wants to move matters forward, it must be amongst the first to put money on the table to catalyse investment and shift the agenda toward mitigation. The Foreign Ministry calls for more investment in supply-side approaches and technologies, demand-side management, and governance. 

In concrete terms, addressing water scarcity requires spending about $1 trillion per year around the world to improve infrastructure. This means desalination plants, dams, treatment facilities and pipes in urban areas and introducing state-of-the-art irrigation. 

Many hydrologists have described water as a “wicked problem”. Wicked problems are those that cannot be solved because no optimal solution is available. This could be true for the UAE’s future climate diplomacy. By choosing water, it has opted for a bold agenda but one that requires vast funding and a long-term commitment to act as a global steward. 

This means upscaling diplomatic activities around the world to levels of the European political heavyweights. It is unlikely the UAE will be able to do this alone. It may have to find ways of collaborating with other GCC countries. 

If the UAE is prepared to scale up its diplomatic efforts with a long-term commitment, Cop28 may mark the beginning of an Arab country influencing world affairs such as climate adaptation. It could also see the Arab region taking over leadership in the Global South. The coming two weeks will therefore be very revealing.

Martin Keulertz is a lecturer in environmental management at the University of the West of England, Bristol

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