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Interview with Johannes Cullman, Director of the Climate and Water Department at the WMO and of the Secretariat to the Water and Climate Coalition

Johannes Cullmann is the Director of the Climate and Water Department at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). He is also the Director of the Secretariat to the Water and Climate Coalition (WCC), a multi-stakeholder initiative under the SDG 6 Accelerator framework that IFGR joined in 2021. We interviewed him after he attended COP26 in Glasgow last November.




Why was it essential for the Water and Climate Coalition to attend COP26?

The Water and Climate Coalition started out with the idea of supporting the integration of the topics of water and climate. It set off to fill the missing space between the water sustainable development debate and the climate sustainable development debate. Attending the COP was a way to link those two negotiations that used to be compartmentalized. We want to integrate the topics of water and climate for adaptation and resilience as well as for mitigation.

It was the first time we had an explicit pavilion. It was very successful: it brought together people who would have normally not talked about the issue of water. Delegates from the negotiation teams came and listened to us, they debated with other visitors. The pavilion acted as an information catalyzer.

Many people, including negotiators, don’t know that water is a big issue, like they didn’t know that climate was a big issue in the 70s. For them, water is a just given commodity, a provision from nature that you can take for granted. They don’t know about the diminishing of our water stock. Three COPs ago there was almost no debate around water at all. Now lots of people realize there is no adaptation without tackling the issue of water.

To what extent were water-related issues taken into consideration during COP26?

Water pavillion at COP26

The importance of integrating water and looking at ways that we take more informed about decisions about adaptation and resilience has taken off the ground during this COP. It is a very good sign! It was not translated into tangible negotiation results, though: the negotiations are much more formal and less focused on adaptation.

We’re most likely failing the Paris agreement. We’re closer to the +2.2 or 2.3°C scenario than the +1.5 or 1.8°C. The emphasis of the negotiators is still very much on bringing people together to lower the greenhouse gas levels. But in parallel, there is an explicit awareness that even if we manage to control the rise of temperatures to +1.5°C, traditional food systems will lose 10 % of productivity, the icecaps and glaciers will still melt, and we will lose water in great rivers. The impact of the climate change on the hydrological system has already reached people. COP27 will take place in Egypt next year and in 2023, the UN Conference for Water will take place in New York. Within the next two years we have a chance to create an international willingness to address this topic. The foundations for that were laid in Glasgow.

What do you see happening between now and 2023? Aren’t you worried two years are going to be wasted?

Next year we will have a COP in Egypt. Egypt is one of the countries that most depend on future water development. I think they will help debate the water issues more explicitly. I don’t think we will lose two years. Those processes are very slow. It took us 20 odd years to come to the Paris Agreement although we knew about the greenhouse effects in the 80s. If we can make sure that we agree on a new way of dealing with the topic of water, a new understanding of cooperation and on new processes, I think we will go faster than the climate process.

We need a new agreement in 2023: we need the countries of the world to come together to preserve water not only as a commodity. We need to work together to ensure that our environment is aquatic enough to help us be more resilient against climate change.

My hope for 2023 is that we get a global awareness and alliance in order to “rehydrate” our environment. It will make us more resilient to floods and droughts and to climate change. Our best way to improve carbon capturing, which we will need to limit the global warming, is to strengthen the uptake in natural systems. We need farming that maximizes the carbon uptake.

Within 10 years we have to resolve the mitigation issue and within the next 2 to 3 years we have to come up with an agreement on how we want to tackle resilience and adaptation in the water sector.

What concrete solutions does the WCC suggest?

Our big goal is to come to an agreement within the next 1 ½ year. We want to organize an international, open, transparent cooperation so that everyone knows what they are dealing with in terms of information and data regarding water. That doesn’t exist yet: we can monitor temperatures and the atmosphere, but we cannot monitor the water cycle. We need a cooperative framework where people trust each other and work together on measuring data and sharing it to create the joint information we need to manage water wisely and defend ourselves against the worst impacts of the water disasters.

Also, we need plans to adapt to climate change that go beyond national boundaries. We need river-based or regional plans where water is linked to the food topic, for example. The WCC wants to propose a mechanism to do that and hopes that COP27 and COP28 will pick it up and decide on how it can be implemented after March 2023. Those are our two big topics.


Can you tell us more about HydroSOS?

HydroSOS (Hydrological Status and Outlook System) is one of the main contributions the WCC wants to bring. It enables players at the national level to measure water assessments, monitor and produce seasonal outlooks. It allows farmers to know what crop to plant, for example, and when to release water.

We work with local and national partners to increase their capabilities to produce and use this information. There are two main outputs with HydroSOS: it is a way to assess water resources and provide outlooks. 66 % of the countries worldwide cannot estimate how their water resources will develop in the next couple of months. They try and manage their resources through their historical data. But hydrology is a non-stationary process: our conditions are changing, we have more floods and droughts, we have different snow melting conditions.

How far along are you using this HydroSOS tool?

It’s a tool that has been developed by the WMO. We have had a 4-year test phase: we have developed the technology that is needed to implement this. It is not something that starts from zero, though. It is not a new technological solution that we put in place in every country: we develop the existing capacities within each country.

HydroSOS is a tool allowing all the water capabilities that are in place in a country to be upgraded and developed. It builds up toward the regional and global system we are aiming at so we can manage water in a better way.

We have had two pilots in Asia and Africa. We have developed the methodology, the tools that we need, and the list of minimum products to ensure harmonized information assessment. I used to work for the German Hydro Service: only 15 years ago did we develop consistent data and methods to assess water in the Rhine river basin. So even in highly developed countries there is still a lot of work to do.

The 193 WMO Congress members have now decided that HydroSOS is going into its implementation phase. I was away recently in India and Bangladesh to establish the HydroSOS operational system in the Gange, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers basins. We are also developing this in the Nile river basin and in Central, North, and South America. It should cost around 600 millions to implement the system globally and another hundred million per year to run it. It sounds like a lot, but it is just the fifth of the cost of a submarine!

What are the current and forthcoming repercussions of climate change on great rivers?

The impacts of climate change will be changes in the flow regime. We can monitor that in the Rhine already: the flow peak happens in the spring instead of early summer, for example. The rivers which are fed from mountains will have an increased or decreased flow. ¼ of the Rhine river in the fall in a very low flow situation is from ice melt: if you take that away in a hundred years, the Rhine will have 25 % less flow under such conditions. That means bigger temperature problems and less water to cool power plants and use for irrigation. The rivers are the integrated measure of how our world changes against climate change. Also, the deltas suffer from increased sea levels and salt water intrusion.

Why is it still so difficult, in your opinion, to give rivers their rightful place in these international negotiations whereas the ocean is taken into full consideration?

I don’t think the ocean is taken into full consideration! But I think the pressure on rivers is higher because they are so close to the people. They have been an economic means for us for so long and have an impact on our physical health. Paradoxically, people are not so aware of the challenges that great rivers face. If we were more aware about them, we would invest more money to create more natural systems.

As a conclusion, I would like to say that we are at a very interesting and critical, but also hopeful point in time. People are starting to consider alternatives. That’s what we need to catalyze now. I hope many more people come and play a part in these processes, not only old white men like me. We want to bring young people to the table.

I hope that young people can take a part in deciding how these changes regarding water and resilience should be made.

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