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How water can help communities combat climate change

by Emma Ash, Senior Water Policy Officer

This column was first published in the Herald on 20 December 2021.

At this time of year, I think many of us are looking for signs of hope.

Following COP26, where international leaders and organisations worked to reach agreements about how to reduce our carbon emissions and limit global temperature rises, I felt I needed to feel hopeful that we can respond to a changing climate.

It has been said that water will be the medium through which climate change will be felt across the world, and early impacts are already taking place.

The UK Government’s Climate Change Risk Assessment states, “the risk of flooding to people, communities and buildings is one of the most severe climate hazards for the [UK] population, both now and in the future.”

While rain in Scotland is obviously not new, we only need to look to events in Edinburgh or Germany this summer, which saw heavy rain overwhelm communities, and in Germany take lives. These will not be isolated events.

In Scotland there is forecast to be a 25% increase in the intensity of rainfall this century.

We’re now seeing powerful rainfall events overwhelm heavily built-up urban environments, with rainwater running-off roads, pavements and roofs, pushing drains to capacity and flooding our homes and businesses.

Where is the hope in that, you may ask? There is evidence from the World Economic forum that shows that “Living near water improves our mental health, it lowers levels of stress and anxiety and could even lead to more physical activity…and also narrows the gap between richer and poorer areas.”

The water sector and local authorities in Scotland are starting to re-design drainage to be more resilient to climate change, by bringing water safely back into our communities using nature-based solutions, often referred to as blue-green solutions.

By working with communities to give rainwater somewhere to go, close to where it falls, and to then drain away safely and slowly, it reduces the risk of flooding.

Such solutions can be multi-functional and can incorporate play areas, cycle paths, they can increase biodiversity, create travel pathways for us and wildlife and much more.

By adapting to climate change in this way we have an opportunity to create better places to live and work and there are great examples of communities that have helped shape the design of their streets, recreational spaces, schools and other places by using blue-green solutions, such as raingardens (google ‘raingardens’ for fantastic examples) or by opening up culverted waterways to give water space to expand and retract.

Involving the community can ensure multi-functional benefits are included that enhance community spaces, as well as build their resilience to climate change.

There are also opportunities to use blue-green designs in our own homes.

Perhaps lay one less paving stone in the patio and fill it with planting, or consider porous paving or a permeable driveway, put a green roof on the shed when it needs re-done, or create a small raingarden, even on a balcony.

Different organisations and agencies across Scotland working together to find ways for communities to be part of ‘building back blue’, and letting nature do its thing, is where I find hope!