Climate change and water – how to solve the tangled crises?

During the Ecosystem and Environment research program open seminars held in the spring semester 2023, the program hosted an array of experts from different fields and discussed how climate change and water issues are intertwined.

We need to build resilience to climate impacts faster. And we need to do so in collaboration with those most vulnerable and exposed to the risks. People have been shocked by unprecedented floods, droughts, and heatwaves, all while hard on the heels of Covid-19. Simultaneously, the water crisis is escalating worldwide.

Ecosystem and Environment research program invited policy makers, researchers, and representatives of environmental organizations to share their expertise on this complex topic. We learned more about the new Finnish climate adaptation plan and its approach to water-related issues, about international climate action and water management, and about Finland’s actions to solve the international water crises, among many other things. 

Food production and access to fresh water at stake

The biggest risk to the world economy is if we do not manage to stop climate change and loss of nature” said Petteri Taalas Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). He highlighted that some of the most severe climate change impacts are related to the combination of warming and changes in precipitation, consequently threatening food production and access to fresh water in many parts of the world. Every year about 4 billion people experience severe water shortages. Beside raising the sea level, the melting of glaciers also has major effects on the supply of clear water, as they are important sources of clean water in many parts of the world. On the bright side, 32 countries, including Finland, have decreased their local CO2 emissions, while maintaining economic growth in the last 15 years, showing potential for restoring the carbon source and carbon sink imbalance, and consequently, slowing down the escalation of water crisis.

Research based decision making needed

The challenges of the water crisis are not taken lightly at the EU-level either. In his speech, Member of the European Parliament, Ville Niinistö, provided an overview of the extensive work on EU-policies related to water management, such as the Water Framework Directive (WFD); the proposal for a directive on Integrated water management; the Nature Restoration Law; the Floods Directive; the Soil Health Law, the revision of the Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products; the Carbon Removal Certification Regulation; the Packaging Directive; the Directive on Single-Use Plastics and the future Common Agricultural Policy. Niinistö highlighted that beyond health concerns of polluted waters – for example, the plastic content of the oceans is expected to double by 2030 –, the water crisis can manifest in conflicts and security challenges as well, while the consequences of floods and droughts threaten many citizens of the EU. Actions are clearly needed, for which Niinistö emphasized the importance of research-based decision making.

Challenges in funding, implementation and integration

Turo Hjerppe, special adviser at the Ministry of the Environment, further elaborated on the EU's Water Framework Directive – the main law for water protection in Europe – and related reform plans. The objective of the WFD is to halt deterioration in the status of water bodies and to achieve “good” status in all water bodies across the EU. Generally, the WFD’s Programmes of Measures have not been binding to single actors. It has been the Member States’ governments’ and municipalities’ responsibility to promote activities within the framework of their budgetary funds. However, rulings of the Court of Justice of the European Union have interpreted the environmental objectives to be binding in permit procedures. Yet, more action is needed. As Hjerppe highlighted, according to the EU Water Legislation Fitness Check conducted recently, only half of the EU water bodies have “good” status. Although the directive was found to be fit for its purpose, lack of funding was identified as a challenge, alongside slow implementation, and insufficient integration of environmental objectives into sectoral policies, on which, According to Hjerppe, Finland is working to improve.

Water is politics

Ville Niinistö discussed that water is an extremely political natural resource because no living creature can live without clean water. And, as special envoy for water of four ministries Antti Rautavaara puts it, Water is an instrument of peace, but in the wrong hands, it is a weapon of mass-destruction. This can be observed, for instance, recently in Ukraine where key water reservoirs are being destroyed. Water diplomacy, also deployed by Finland, is a dynamic, politically oriented process that aims to prevent, mitigate, and resolve water-related tensions in shared waters by making simultaneous use of diplomatic tools, water-related know-how and cooperation mechanism across multiple diplomacy tracks. Finland, with extensive know-how on cross-border water cooperation has offered its strategic water diplomacy services for the global community. At the level of the United Nations Finland has been active in promoting international water cooperations in Water Platforms. Rautavaara also presented the Finnish approach to sustainable water management based on cross-sectoral collaboration within the Finnish Water Way – International Water Strategy. According to Rautavaara, it is clear that there is an increasing need for effective water diplomacy in light of population growth, climate change and political tensions.

Climate change adaptation plan

Karoliina Pilli-Sihvola, Senior Ministerial Adviser at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, introduced the water-related aspects of Finland’s National Climate Change Adaptation Plan (document in Finnish only). The recently adopted adaptation programme spans over 100 pages and include for example the assessment of the risks of increased precipitation and drought, as well as key adaptation measures to tackle them in Finland and beyond. Due to climate change and related water crisis, national primary production and transboundary risks are increasing. Thus, food and nutrition security are explicitly discussed in the new plan beside catchment area-level planning, international cooperation (including the export of Finnish water management expertise, illustrated in “Water solutions and expertise from Finland”) and the better integration of food and nutrition security adaptation tasks into environmental and agricultural policies, like the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU. According to Pilli-Sihvola, adaptation is urgently needed. Although Finland’s policy packages are relatively advanced in paying attention to adaptation measures beside mitigation, more and quicker work is required. For example, runoff management improvement incentives in agriculture and forestry are in preparation, but they might take considerable time to be implemented. Pilli-Sihvola also underscored that it is important to remember that “water has long memory”. In other words, human impacts on water quality are long-lasting and sometimes they take considerable time to become evident.

Regenerative agriculture

Founder of the Baltic Sea Action Group Foundation and the Carbon Action Platform, Saara Kankaanrinta also highlighted the importance of the intertwined nature of food systems and water solution. In her presentation, Kankaanrinta explained how the practices of intensive (degenerative) agriculture have gone hand in hand with the deterioration of the soil, its biodiversity and its carbon storage capacity, as well as surrounding water bodies’ quality through the process of eutrophication. Such practices have depleted vast areas of land across the globe so much, that it is not anymore sufficient to reach sustainability in agriculture. In order to rehabilitate healthy ecological cycles of carbon, water, nitrogen and phosphorus, agriculture should be regenerative. Kankaanrinta described how far ahead Finland is in implementing regenerative agricultural practices in a systematic manner, in which the organizations she is working have played a substantial role. Their e-learning platform on regenerative agriculture is free for all farmers and available online.

Migratory fish challenged by dams

The process of eutrophication of water bodies is exacerbated by climate change through mild winters and heavy precipitation, said Jenny Jyrkänkallio-Mikkola, Leading Freshwater Expert at WWF Finland. Although 87% of Finnish lakes and 68 % of rivers and streams are in “good” or “high” ecological status, many headwater brooks and rills with catchment area below 10 km2 are not recognized as water bodies, and thus, not monitored and protected as well as official water bodies, despite providing spawning grounds for numerous migratory fish. Beside the negative effects of eutrophication, the largest cause of endangerment for migratory fish are dams in Finland, since dams are potential obstacles for such fish in reaching lakes or the sea from rivers and streams. According to Jyrkänkallio-Mikkola, there are 5200 dams in Finland, out of which two to three thousand are total obstacles. Approximately 700 dams are for hydropower generation, and 220 are connected to the national grid. In addition, there are approximately 90 000 culverts in Finland, and one third of those constitute obstacles for migratory fish. Jyrkänkallio-Mikkola shared about the activities of WWF Finland in removing both larger dams (in e.g., Hiitolanjoki) and other migration obstacles, which already show spectacular results in e.g., juvenile salmonoids’ population increase. As Jyrkänkallio-Mikkola highlighted, such interventions are never feasible to execute by a single organization, but are the results of numerous partners’ and stakeholders’ joint effort.

Upcoming seminars – mining in focus

During the autumn, the seminar series will continue with putting mining in the focus, for which the European Commission’s recently introduced proposal for a Critical Raw Materials Act gives a strong momentum. We will dive deeper into questions on, for example, how the increasing number of mines impact the environment, and if the key towards a green transition lies in the circular economy or should we simply reduce consumption?

The ECOENV seminar series is hosted by professor in practice Hannele Pokka who introduces speakers from the different quarters of politics, business and the research-policy interphase discussing sustainability of mining in Europe from different perspectives.

The seminars are always from 14.15. to 15, on-line (link to Zoom) and open access. Welcome!


6.9. MEP Henna VirkkunenThe EU`s critical raw material act – what is it all about                                 

27.9. Prof. Janne Kotiaho (University of Jyväskylä): Ecological compensation – green wash or a tool to minimize environmental damages

25.10. Associate Prof. Simon Michaux (Geological Survey of Finland): Are the world`s mineral resources sufficient for the green transition?                    

29.11. Special adviser Jarkko Vesa (Ministry of business and employment) and mining industry representative (TBC): Circular economy and mining – topical issues

13.12. Will climate change and loss of biodiversity be solved by circular economy or by reducing consumption? (speaker TBC)