What Could COP-21 Mean for Wastewater Utilities?

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The world is waiting to see what new global agreement on climate change materializes as the United Nations’ COP 21 – the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties – nears its conclusion this week. The COP 21 talks have again made climate change the subject of many global headlines. But what does the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions mean to clean water agencies and the communities they serve? Climate and resiliency issues are fundamentally about water, and clean water utilities around the country – and around the world –  are grappling with how to plan for sea level rise, water scarcity and increased rainfall due to climate change.

In a recent interview with NPR, NACWA’s Climate and Resilience Committee Chair, Chris Crockett with the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), put the challenge he and his fellow utility managers face in predicting the effect of a changing global climate on local systems in layman’s terms: “Because you really want to know – how high can [sea level rise] go? When is it going to stop? Should we just plan for everything melting?” Lacking the ability to use historic data to make engineering decisions while facing an uncertain future – utilities, including PWD, are coming up with more and more innovative adaptation strategies.

UNESCO understands the importance of these approaches and organized the Water, Megacities & Global Change conference in conjunction with the start of COP 21 in Paris last week to bring the global water community together. NACWA and the municipal clean water community in the United States were represented by NACWA President Adel Hagekhalil from the City of Los Angeles, and three other major city utility representatives. They joined city decision makers from around the world to share climate adaptation strategies with one another. Most importantly, the conference was meant to ensure that binding international requirements must fully consider water quality and quantity issues in a reasonable and sustainable manner.

Fast-forward one week, and many of those same representatives join a different audience for the AMWA International Water and Climate Forum in California where drinking water utilities and NACWA members continue the discussion of how they can be part of a larger climate solution. Many utilities recognize their responsibility to the residents of their communities and the citizens of the world to be proactive climate advocates while protecting their natural resources and infrastructure well into the future.

Regardless of the outcome of the COP 21 meeting, the road forward for clean water utilities to address climate change issues will be a challenging one.  But as the strong engagement of the utility community over the last two weeks shows, there is no shortage of willingness among the municipal water sector to explore common solutions.  As utilities continue to innovate and look for new solutions, maybe the future won’t look quite so unpredictable after all.

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