In the face of climate change, it’s more important than ever to support and strengthen communities' management of the water resources on which they rely.

Rivers are the world’s main source of clean drinking water, and their economic and environmental value are fundamental to the health of people and ecosystems. However, river basins face interrelated challenges — population growth, industrialization, urbanization, land use changes (including deforestation and land degradation), and changes in water quantity and quality. Climate change acts as a stress multiplier, altering water availability and increasing water requirements as temperatures rise. To safeguard water resources in a world with a growing population and a changing climate, governments, citizens, and the development community will need to work together to improve water management and strengthen coping mechanisms.

A recent climate vulnerability assessment conducted by the USAID Adaptation Thought Leadership and Assessments (ATLAS) project with local stakeholders and partners examined the risks and impacts of climate change on the Mara River Basin in Kenya and Tanzania. In addition to documenting current and potential future climate impacts on the basin — and the wildlife and 1.28 million people it supports — the assessment report makes several recommendations that development practitioners, donors, policymakers, and other stakeholders should consider for protecting water resources in communities facing similar challenges around the world.

1. We need to empower communities and strengthen local governance.

Kenya and Tanzania have strong local water associations with a mandate to plan for and manage the local waters within their purview. Local management makes sense and is common practice. Local managers know their local climates, they know the users, and they know the ebb and flow of their local water resources. Unfortunately, these local water associations often lack the capacity and financial resources to implement their plans. Donor-funded projects have an opportunity to support these associations by assisting with planning, project prioritization and budgeting, building a membership base, and developing association-controlled funding streams to implement planned projects. They can also work with associations to develop and enforce water use regulations. For example, on one USAID project in Tanzania, implementers are working with local associations in the Rufiji and Wami-Ruvu river basins to develop and manage water user fee collection systems, participate in water allocation planning, and manage water users, such as farmers and industry. These local governance strengthening efforts are expected to help more than 500,000 people gain access to improved water supplies.

2. Information needs to be timely, high-quality, and easily accessible.

For communities to understand what is happening with climate variability and change, what is going to happen and when, and what to do about it, communities need information. That information needs to be reliable, easy to understand, and delivered in time for sufficient planning and preparation. Right now, communities in Kenya and Tanzania — and countless others — are not getting this information, which limits their ability to be effective resource managers and advocates. The development community can offer support to improve information in a number of ways, including providing additional hardware to generate local weather data, conducting studies and surveys to support planning and decision-making, expanding the reach of national-level weather information via radio or SMS, and conducting trainings to improve knowledge and local capacity. Along the Mekong River, for example, the World Meteorological Organization, USAID, and others have expended significant effort over the past 10 years to significantly increase the number of weather stations and stream gauges as part of a regional flash flood warning network. USAID has also invested in water evaluation and planning models in several countries to allow local governments to evaluate potential adaptation actions at the watershed scale. In Peru, rural communities in five regions now incorporate climate risk into local development plans and implement measures to increase dry season water availability.

3. We need to embrace local coping strategies and expose communities to new coping mechanisms.

Many communities already have strategies in place to cope with weather and climate variability. For instance, communities in the Mara River Basin intercrop their primary crop — usually maize or tea — with more drought-resistant crops, such as cassava and sorghum, and other cash crops like cotton, oilseeds, and avocados. Given the reduction in the number of small streams and availability of grazing land, farmers are turning to alternative livestock, like dairy goats, which require less space and fewer resources. In many areas, water associations actively promote soil and water conservation techniques, such as mulching and planting cover crops to reduce sediment loads. Donors need to embrace these local strategies by investing in improving and expanding their practice. In addition to these local solutions, donors, implementers, and other stakeholders need to introduce new coping mechanisms, particularly in areas where crops are primarily rain-fed, and livestock rely on surface water. For example, in India’s Shivamogga forest, which forms the catchment of the Tunga and Tungabhadra rivers, one USAID project piloted a switch from open grazing to using areca nut tree leaves — a previously untapped resource — as fodder. In Ethiopia, another USAID project has reached more than 1.5 million beneficiaries and strengthened food security through water management strategies, including small-scale irrigation, water harvesting on seasonal streams, stream diversion, and construction of micro-dams.

Water shortages are not solely the result of insufficient precipitation; rather, they are often caused by poor management practices and coping strategies, which are brought to light by shocks like a prolonged, severe drought. Climate change exacerbates existing challenges — growing populations, land use changes, poor resource management — and will require that communities, governments, and donors work together to find sustainable solutions that guarantee water supplies in the face of increasing demands.

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