It is an honor and pleasure for me to have the opportunity to address this session on the very important issue of climate change, water and health.
If you have had time to explore Iceland outside this meeting venue you are likely to have been surrounded by water, experienced rain, probably coming sideways or even upwards. Icelanders are blessed with rich water resoures and Iceland tops the list in terms of total renewable water resources per capita - but then - we often do well – in particular per capita.
The domestic energy production in Iceland is based on water; we use geothermal water to heat homes and the steam and surface water to generate electricity. Underground aquifers provide potable water for domestic purposes while heated outdoor swimming pools and jacuzzis are key to health, recreation and well being of our citizens. I urge you to try out some of our swimming pools whilst wisiting.
But, as we know, freshwater resources are scarce world-wide and unevenly distributed. More than one billion people do not have sufficient access to clean water and more than 2.3 billion people live in water stressed basins.
The world population will reach 9.8 billion in 2050, according to the latest UN report. The global population increase will be in countries, which are in many cases already experiencing water scarcity conditions. Increased demand for water is one of the major challenges facing these countries.
Water and climate change
The influences of global warming are largely felt through changes in the water cycle. The sea level rises as the oceans warm up and expand, and hydrological systems are affected by changing precipitation and melting of glaciers and snow. We are seeing permafrost degradation, changes in river discharge patterns and glacial shrinkage. In Iceland the glaciers will largely disappear in the next two centuries, if global warming continues as models predict. The result will be - Iceland without ice. Perhaps they will then just call us “Land”?
Changes in precipitation such as increase in high latitudes and substantial decrease in other areas such as the Mediterranean and Carribbean regions, damage caused by extreme weather events and intrusion of seawater into low lying water reservoirs, add to the challenges we already face by increased demand for water and human activites.
Water issues in Iceland
98% of drinking water in Iceland is groundwater that does not need disinfection or other treatment before distribution. To ensure good water quality and safety it is, nevertheless, essential to follow strict operational procedures for the withdrawal of water and distribution and to keep the infrastructure well maintained. The reglulation on drinking water, which sets the quality criteria for water corresponds to EU directive on the quality of water intended for human consumption. Water was defined as food by law in Iceland in 1995 and since then the water utilities have been obliged to comply with the requirements of the food law and corresponding regulations, resulting in lower incidence of waterborne microbial outbreakes in the country.
In Europe a framework for the protection of water has been set by the Water Framework Directive, which has been incorporated into Icelandic law through the EEA agreement. The legislation creates a framework for protection of groundwater, surfacewater and coastal waters in Iceland. With this integrated water resource management a basis has been created for long-term sustainable use and protection of the water-resources in Iceland.
Water, climate change, adequate nutrition and food security
Adequate nutrition is the basis for good health, while malnutrition is a threat, which leads to a weakened immune system, disease, loss of strength and impared develpment in children. Undernutrition is the cause of about one-third of child deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
Increased demand for food places pressure on both water and land, which are becoming more scarce. Ecosystems and biodiversity are threathened as more land is taken for agricultural purposes. Wetlands, are a particular case. While wetlands cover a small percentage of Earth's surface they store important amounts of carbon and provide invaluable ecosystem services and support unique nature. Disturbed wetlands are significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. This is also the case in Iceland, where wetlands were extensively drained for agricultural purposes after the second world war. Restoration of drained wetlands, revegetation and reforestation are priority areas for my ministry with the purpose to halt CO2 emissions and increase carbon sequestration and preserve and enhance biodiversity, trying to maximize synergies between three important international agreements; on climate change, biodiversity and combating desertification and land degradation.
Agriculture, forestry and other land use are responsible for just under a quarter of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions globally mainly from deforestation and agricultural emissions from livestock, soil and nutrient management. In order to stay within the 2°C target set in the Paris agreement it is imperative to reduce emissions from this large sector alongside reductions emissions from all other sectors.
The world has seen an unprecedented economic progress in the last decades, and the good news is that more than 1 billion people have moved out of poverty since 1990. One consequence of the nutrition transformation that has taken place in the developing countries is that the consumption of animal protein has increased sharply. The increased demand for more animal protein puts pressure on land use and water resources, and leads to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions. A paper published this month in Science, highlighted that the impacts of the lowest-impact animal products typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes and that animal farming takes up 83% of the world’s agricultural land, but delivers only 18% of our calories. The livestock sector is also a key player in increasing water use and water depletion according to a FAO report. It is furthermore important to note that irrigated agriculture is the largest user of water globally and accounts for 70% of water abstraction.
Increasing overall efficiency of water use and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, while ensuring food security for a growing world population is not an easy task. It requires a variety of different actions - one is that we critically examine our habits and revise our diets, choose food items with low carbon and water foodprint, cut losses in the supply chain and reduce food-waste.
Adaptation to climate change
Halting the rise in greenhouse gas emissions with ambitious implementation of the Paris agreement is the best measure to escape the adverse effects of global warming.
Iceland has decleared a common target with the EU and Norway under the Paris agreement for 2030 and my government has pledged carbon neutrality for Iceland in 2040. An action plan for cutting emissions and increasing carbon sequestration in vegetation and soil before 2030 is currently being prepared and a special Climate Board commissioned with the task of producing a report on ways to achieve the carbon neutrality goal.
But, mitigation is not enough. The climate is already changing and with the amount of greenhouse gases already emitted into the atmosphere we have to be prepared for even more serious effects in the years ahead. Every country has its own circumstances and adaptation measures have to be tailored to their specific needs.
Icelandic scientists produced a new report last month on the effects of climate change in Iceland. The report highlights the effects sea-level rise and increased intensity and frequency of heavy rain may have on urban waste water discharges. Sea level rise reduces the height difference between land and the recipient causing a reduced flow rate in the collecting system, which makes them less efficient. The risks of inflow of seawater into the systems at high tide increases and heavy rain og snowmelt can cause flood damage when the collective systems become overloaded. These observations, which apply to coastal cities world wide, call for further investigation into the effects of climate change on sewage disposal, and ways to adapt. Increased focus is on using soil infiltration in urban areas by applying blue-green stormwater systems with rain gardens, ponds and green roofs.
What is Iceland doing
Nations differ, not only with respect to how they will be hit by adverse effects of climate change, but also with repect to their resilience and the capacity to prepare and strengthen their infrastructure. Some of the poorest and most vulnerable countries will suffer from extreme weather events such as prolonged droughts, hurricanes and floods. These countries need aid for climate change adaptation.
The importance of ensuring access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) cannot be understated. That is why the 2030 Agenda recognizes WASH as both a stand-alone goal as well as a driver of progress on many of the SDGs, such as health, nutrition, education and gender equality.
We have come far since 2000 but still have a long way to go. It is quite simply unacceptable that 2.1 billion people still lack access to safe and clean water and that 4.5 billion people don´t have access to proper sanitation services. This lack of access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene results in more than 340.000 children under five dying every year from diarrheal diseases.
Poor access to safe drinking water disproportionately impacts women, who often have the primary responsibility for fetching water. This is a time-consuming task for women and girls in many countries, who in turn have less time to spend on other more productive activities such as their education. SDG 6 is therefore at its core a gender goal. We here in Iceland are acutely aware of the importance of empowering women and ensuring gender equality, both as a human right and as a mean to achieving higher levels of development.
Iceland, through its development cooperation, has provided funding to ensure access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene in our bilateral partner countries Malawi and Uganda as well as in Mozambique. In Zambezia district in Mozambique, in partnership with UNICEF, Iceland has recently provided 48,000 new users with improved water sources and 300,000 new users with adequate sanitation facilities, which amounts to the entire population of Iceland.
In line with the circular nature of our environment, climate change impacts water supply which in turn can have an impact on climate change. Energy used for pumping water, for example, can have a significant carbon footprint. That is why in our bilateral partner countries, Uganda and Malawi, Iceland has funded water projects where the water pumps are driven entirely by solar energy.
We have become used to being steadily bombarded by a flow of news about wars, criminal acts, disasters and accidents. This pessimistic deluge makes us believe that the world is bad and will only get worse. When we look at numbers and statistics we can see that this isn´t really so. To take an example - extreme poverty, illiteracy and child mortality have in fact diminished.
Optimism is a necessary component for overcoming the challenges I have discussed. Success stories make us stronger and we should learn from past mistakes. The heading for this meeting "working together for better health and well-being for all" brings to mind an African proverb that says: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
The WHO small countries initiative is an example of the latter, -with combined effort we can be successful in achieving the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.