Climate adaptation in relation to water can take many shapes and forms. Often, it is a matter of adapting to having either too much or too little water.

As coastal communities face rising sea-levels, technologies can help keep water at bay. For those confronting water pollution and scarcity, there have been huge advances in capturing and treating water from all kinds of sources. However, climate impacts are felt beyond the human population. Increasingly acidic and warm oceans call for strengthened and innovative approaches to marine ecosystem conservation.


Technological developments and trends

Too much water

Stacked sandbags and houses on stilts are many people's idea of flood-related technologies. In many ways, innovation is following the same path but using new types of materials, improving ease of use and being guided by forecasting and mapping … Read more

Technological developments and trends

Too much water

Stacked sandbags and houses on stilts are many people's idea of flood-related technologies. In many ways, innovation is following the same path but using new types of materials, improving ease of use and being guided by forecasting and mapping tools. Depending on where you are in the world, sandbags and stilts might still be the best option. However, more recent developments include quickly installed and removed mobile flood barriers, or tubes and bags containing super-absorbent powder placed around houses and other assets that swell on contact with water. Meanwhile, nature-based solutions include reconnecting floodplains and wetland conservation to help reduce flood volumes and delay downstream water flow. However, all of these alternatives may have limited effectiveness in the face of high-impact floods and disasters. When adapting to floods and protecting coastal communities and assets from hazards, relocation and retreat from hazard-prone zones may in some cases be the only viable long-term solution.

Too little water

Parts of the world are facing the dual challenge of not only increased floods but drought. Technologies such as managed aquifer recharge (MAR) can turn floodwater into a resource by directing it into underground aquifers for use during dry periods. Increasing water scarcity has spurred the development and adoption of technologies that recycle and make use of alternative water sources. While there are advances in the treatment and reuse of water from agriculture, households and industry, they often come with large energy footprints. For instance, water-stressed countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait depend on seawater desalination for their drinking water. Moreover, many other countries increasingly regard desalinization as necessary. As global freshwater demand is expected to far outstrip water supply in the future,[1] development of water conservation technologies is becoming a growing trend. Significant potential lies in switching to water-efficient irrigation systems such as drip and sprinkler irrigation. However, advances in remote sensing and internet of things (IoT) technologies can provide further water savings by enabling precision agriculture and remote detection of leaks in irrigation and urban water infrastructure.

Protecting marine ecosystems

Life below water faces unprecedented challenges from climate change. Impacts include warming oceans and acidification, as well as other major human-induced threats.[2] The consequences are unclear. But there are technologies being developed related to marine ecosystem conservation and the strengthening of species’ climate resilience. From artificial reefs to coral gardening, much innovation seems focused on specific ecosystems such as coral. Trends in other technology sectors, such as automation and genetic engineering, have also entered this space, although mainly used by conservation groups and science institutions. Examples include underwater drones that relocate farmed coral larvae to their natural habitat and genetically modifying coral so it can withstand higher temperatures. However, while techniques like the assisted relocation of species could present an adaptation response, they could also create risks related to invasive species. That said, technology may help marine environments overcome some climate change pressures – at least at a local level. Read less

Patents and finance

Flood prevention and control

Global demand for flood protection solutions can be seen through innovation metrics such a patent applications. Worldwide, the number of flood and coastal defense patent families filed has grown year-on-year for the last two decades. In the last … Read more

Patents and finance

Flood prevention and control

Global demand for flood protection solutions can be seen through innovation metrics such a patent applications. Worldwide, the number of flood and coastal defense patent families filed has grown year-on-year for the last two decades. In the last decade alone, the number has increased almost sixfold (figure 4.1). They relate mainly to constructions (nearly 75 percent), but also floodgates and earthworks (such as embankments). This suggests a continued interest in hard engineering solutions for coastal defense. Over half of all patent families originated in China. The Republic of Korea and Japan, followed by Canada, also account for a large proportion of the total.[3] Growth trend and distribution of patents, with a heavy regional focus on Asia, broadly reflect realities on the ground in terms of flood event intensity, frequency and locality.

Solar-integrated and decentralized water management

Increased water scarcity has turned many countries toward technologies that desalinate seawater for drinking and other uses. For water management technologies such as desalination, saltwater intrusion barriers and filtration systems, data from the European Patent Office suggests an 8 percent annual average growth of innovation, as measured by high-value patents in the years 1995–2015. These technologies also have high technology transfer rates – nearly twice as much as for coastal and river protection technologies such as dikes, dams and artificial reefs.[4] Desalination technologies are not new. However, although critics point to high-energy consumption rates, there are developments in renewable energy integration. An analysis of patent families relating to desalination and renewable energy integration found that most patents focus on solar thermal technology.[5]

Of the top 20 patent owners in the desalination space, the vast majority are Japanese companies. In 2011, the top two companies by number of patents were Mitsubishi and Hitachi. China has also emerged as a major player in water treatment and physical or chemical processes.[6] For example, in the last decade, China accounted for over half of inventions related to energy efficiency in reverse osmosis and electrochemical desalination technologies (figure 4.2).[7]

Innovations in water treatment technologies are not adaptation-specific. But they are key to responding to water challenges exacerbated by climate change. However, inventions are not always driven by local water demand. Countries such as Switzerland and Norway have strong markets in this sector despite high water availability, reflecting their overall strong innovation ecosystem. While a majority (80 percent) of water efficiency technologies occur in countries with low or moderate water scarcity, specialization also occurs in several countries with more severe water scarcity.[8] Membrane-based water treatment is an example of a technology that has seen a high level of innovation. Japan has traditionally been the biggest player in this technology.[9] However, China has overtaken Japan in recent years in patents published for biologically-based membranes.[10] A rising interest and need for more diverse and decentralized water systems is reflected in the patents for modular water technologies. Examples include turnkey water treatment solutions and modularization of desalination technologies.[11]

Concentration of marine genome patents

Marine conservation in response to warming oceans and acidification has accelerated research into the genetics of marine organisms. This is with the aim of better understanding how to facilitate adaptation to environmental changes. Genomic sequences and other biomolecules sequenced and isolated from corals and other marine species respectively may be patented under certain conditions and for certain uses. A patent may grant private entities exclusive rights for that specific use of the sequence in research, development and commercialization. The majority of such patents are concentrated among just a few players, mostly in high-income countries. Much of the patent activity is concentrated in pharmaceuticals, peptides and biocides rather than in finding ways to enable marine species adaptation to climate change.[12]

Investment needs vary

Like other adaptation sectors, water and coastal adaptation is subject to uncertainties with regard to the accuracy of climate projections. This makes estimating financing needs challenging. However, the annual investment and maintenance costs of coastal protection have been projected to be USD 12–71 billion. Yet this is considered considerably less than the cost of damages in the absence of such investments.[13] Financing need for example for coastal flood defense varies widely among countries, with low-income, low-lying countries and small island states requiring substantial international support. The United Nations Environment Programme[14] estimates that the water sector in developing countries represents about 15 percent of total adaptation finance needs, after agriculture and infrastructure. In an analysis of 12 Pacific island states, 57 percent of built infrastructure was found to be located within 500 meters a coastline, requiring a replacement value of USD 21.9 billion. Meanwhile, in West African fisheries, loss of coastal ecosystems and productivity are estimated to require 5–10 percent of the countries’ GDP in adaptation costs.[15]

Infrastructure projects often a priority

Around one-fifth of adaptation projects funded by the top 10 bilateral donors are related to either water or infrastructure. The percentage of adaptation funding going toward water and sanitation is generally higher from multilateral development banks. However, these commitments are mainly as debt instruments, with only a small proportion provided as grants.[16] Considering the growing adaptation finance need, investments in so-called no-regret technologies such as water efficiency could offer more predictable cost benefits. This is also evident in water-related climate finance, which is mainly directed toward large infrastructure projects for water resource management, water supply and sanitation. The European Investment Bank (EIB) has identified water scarcity and flooding as key investment areas, referring mainly to investments in engineered structures.[17] A large focus on infrastructure-related investments risks technology “lock-in” and not meeting the needs of vulnerable communities most at risk. However, increasingly, multilateral climate funds are investing in adaptation to meet rural and community-scale water and sanitation challenges.[18] Read less

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