Making water the engine for climate action

Much progress has been made on water security over recent decades, yet for the first time in human history, our collective actions have pushed the global water cycle out of balance. Water is life: it is essential for health, food, energy, socioeconomic development, nature and livable cities. It is hardly surprising that the climate and biodiversity crises are also a water crisis, where one reinforces the other. Already, a staggering four billion people suffer from water scarcity  for at least one month a year and two billion people lack access to safely-managed drinking water. By 2030, global water demand will exceed availability by 40 percent. By 2050, climate-driven water scarcity could impact the economic growth of some regions by up to 6 percent of their Gross Domestic Product per year.

Meike van Ginneken, Water Envoy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands

Right now, the world’s first Global Stocktake is assessing the progress being made toward the goals of the Paris Agreement and global leaders are convening at COP28 in Dubai to agree on a way forward. We have a critical opportunity to catalyze global ambition and recognize that water is how climate change manifests itself. While wealthier, more resilient nations may be able to manage the devastating impacts of climate change, these same challenges are disastrous for lesser developed, more vulnerable communities.

Rainfall, the source of all freshwater, is becoming more erratic. Changes in precipitation, evaporation and soil moisture are creating severe food insecurity. Droughts trap farmers in poverty, as the majority of cultivated land is rain-fed. Extreme drought reduces growth in developing countries by about 0.85 percentage points. Melting glaciers, sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion jeopardize freshwater supplies. Floods destroy infrastructure, damage homes and disrupt livelihoods. The 2022 Pakistan floods affected 33 million people and more than 1,730 lost their lives, while 2023 saw devastating floods in Libya among other places.  

Now more than ever, it is urgent that we work together to make water the engine of climate action. Already, many countries are investing in technology and climate-resilient water infrastructure. Yet, we need more than technology and engineering to adapt to a changing climate. To advance global water action, we must radically change the way we understand, value and manage water with an emphasis on two necessary measures.

First, we need to make water availability central to our economic planning and decision-making. We need to rethink where and how we grow our food, where we build our cities, and where we plan our industries. We cannot continue to grow thirsty crops in drylands or drain wetlands and cut down forests to raise our cattle. In a changing climate, water availability needs to guide where we undertake economic activity.

In a changing climate, water availability needs to guide where we undertake economic activity.  

Second, we must restore and protect natural freshwater stocks, our buffers against extreme climate events. Natural freshwater storage is how we save water for dry periods and freshwater storage capacity is how we store rainwater to mitigate floods. 99 percent of freshwater storage is in nature. We need to halt the decline of groundwater, wetlands and floodplains. But our challenge is not only about surface and groundwater bodies, or blue water. We also need to preserve and restore our green water stocks, or the water that remains in the soil after rainfall. To reduce the decline of blue water and preserve green water, we need to implement water-friendly crop-management practices and incorporate key stakeholders, such as farmers, into the decision-making process.

Addressing the urgency of the global water crisis goes beyond the water sector. It requires transformative changes at every level of society. National climate plans such as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and National Adaptation Plans are key instruments to make water an organizing principle to spatial, economic and investment planning. Much like the Netherlands did earlier this year when the Dutch parliament adopted a policy that makes water and soil guiding principles in all our spatial planning decisions. Right now, about 90 percent of all countries’ NDCs prioritize action on water for adaptation. NDCs and National Adaptation Plans are drivers of integrated planning and have the potential to unlock vast investments, yet including targets for water is only a first step.

To drive global action, the Netherlands and the Republic of Tajikistan co-hosted the United Nations 2023 Water Conference, bringing the world together for a bold Water Action Agenda to accelerate change across sectors and deliver on the water actions in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement. To elevate the agenda’s emphasis on accelerating implementation and improved impact, the Netherlands is contributing an additional €5 million to the NDC Partnership to support countries to mitigate the impacts of climate change, reduce water-related climate vulnerability and increase public and private investments targeting water-nexus opportunities. As a global coalition of over 200 countries and international institutions, the NDC Partnership is uniquely positioned to support countries to enhance the integration of water in formulating, updating, financing and implementing countries’ NDCs.

One example showcasing the importance of incorporating water management into national planning comes from former NDC Partnership co-chair and climate leader, Jamaica. Jamaica’s National Water Commission (NWC), one of the largest electricity consumers in the country, mobilized technical assistance to develop an integrated energy efficiency and renewables program to reduce its energy intensity, building up the resilience of the network, while helping reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. With additional support from the Netherlands, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), together with Global Water Partnership (GWP)-Caribbean, the government of Jamaica will ensure the National Water Commission is well equipped for the future. Implementation of climate commitments and the requisite financing to do so are key to ensuring targets like these are met.

Water has the power to connect. The Netherlands is reaching out to the world.

Water has the power to connect. The Netherlands is reaching out to the world. We are committed to providing political leadership and deploying our know-how for a more water-secure world. As we look towards the outcomes of the Global Stocktake and COP28, it is essential that we make water the engine of climate action. 



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Blockaded on all fronts: Poland and Hungary threaten to cut Ukraine’s export route to the West

As Russia once again bombards and blockades Ukraine’s Black Sea ports — through which the country exports its vast agricultural produce — Poland and Hungary threaten to cut off the country’s western exit routes.

Poland will unilaterally block trade with Ukraine if the European Commission fails to extend temporary restrictions on grain imports at least until the end of the year, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a meeting of agriculture ministers from five Eastern EU countries in Warsaw on Wednesday.

“I want to make it clear,” Morawiecki told reporters, “we will not open our border. Either the European Commission will agree to jointly work out regulations that will extend this ban, or we will do it ourselves.”

Hungarian Agriculture Minister István Nagy echoed Morawiecki, saying his country would “protect Hungarian farmers with all its means.”

Days after killing a deal to allow Ukraine to export grain across the Black Sea, Moscow unleashed a wave of attacks on the Ukrainian ports of Odesa and Chornomorsk — two vital export facilities — damaging the infrastructure of global and Ukrainian traders and destroying 60,000 tons of grain.

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borell, called Russia’s escalating offensive “barbarian” on Thursday. “What we already know is that this is going to create a huge food crisis in the world,” he told reporters in Brussels, adding that EU countries needed to step up alternative export routes for Ukraine.

Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest exporters of corn, wheat and other grains. Following Russia’s invasion and blockade of its Black Sea ports last year, the EU set up land export routes through its territory.

In the year since, export corridors set up by the EU called ‘solidarity lanes’ have carried about 60 percent of Ukraine’s exports — mostly along the Danube to the Romanian port of Constanța. The remaining 40 percent has trickled through the country’s own ports under the now-defunct Black Sea Grain Initiative brokered by the U.N. and Turkey.

But the opening of the overland routes also led to an unprecedented influx of cheap Ukrainian grain into neighboring EU countries — Romania, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia — which was bought and resold by local traders instead of being exported further afield. The glut has put the solidarity of the bloc’s Eastern members with Ukraine in its war of defense sorely to the test.

With an election looming this fall, Poland sought to appease local farmers — a vital constituency for the right-wing government — by closing its border this spring to Ukrainian imports. Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria followed suit while Romania, which didn’t impose its own restrictions, joined the four in calling for restrictions at EU level.

In May, the five countries struck a deal with the Commission to drop their unilateral measures in exchange for €100 million in EU funding and assurances that Ukrainian shipments would only pass through the five countries on their way to other destinations. 

It’s these restrictions, which will expire on September 15, that the five countries want extended.

Other EU countries have criticized the Commission’s leniency towards the five Eastern troublemakers, saying the compromise undermined the integrity of the bloc’s internal market.

Open the borders

Borrell said that, instead of restricting trade, the EU should respond to Russia’s Black Sea escalation by opening its borders further.

“If the sea route is closed, we will have to increase the capacity of exporting Ukrainian grain through our ports, which means a bigger effort for the Ukrainian neighbors,” he said before a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

“They will have to contribute more, opening the borders and facilitating transport in order to take the grain of Ukraine from the Black Sea ports. This will require from Member States more engagement. We have done a lot, we have to do more.”

Separately on Thursday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called on the EU to make “maximum efforts” to facilitate grain exports from the country.

“While Russia destroys the Grain Initiative, attacks Ukrainian ports and tries to make money on rising food prices, Ukraine and the European Union should make maximum efforts to simplify food exports from Ukraine, particularly by increasing the capacity of alternative transport corridors ‘Solidarity Lanes’ as much as possible,” he said.

During Wednesday’s meeting in Warsaw, agriculture ministers from the five EU countries signed a declaration calling on Brussels to extend and expand the trade restrictions, amid concerns that Russia’s renewed Black Sea blockade could further pressure their domestic markets.

Only Poland and Hungary threatened to take unilateral action if the restrictions were lifted.

Premature

Despite the threat, a senior Commission official said on Thursday it was “premature” to say whether there was a need to extend the restrictions beyond the September 15 deadline.

In recent months, officials have stepped up surveillance and customs checks, and Romania and other countries have significantly increased investment in infrastructure and investment to facilitate the transit of grain through their countries and to other markets, the Commission official said.

But in the year since the land-based export routes were opened, Poland has taken no major steps to improve its own infrastructure or the capacity of its Baltic ports. Analysts say it is unlikely the country will be able to repeat the feat come this summer’s harvest. The Polish government has repeatedly blamed Brussels for not providing enough help.

Despite the ongoing trade dispute, officials in Kyiv have been careful not to openly criticize their counterparts in Warsaw.

That’s because Poland has played a leading role in supporting Ukraine since the war broke out, acting as the main transit point for Western weapons and sending plenty of its own. It has also taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees.

“We highly appreciate all the work done so far within the solidarity lanes by the European Commission and neighboring member states,” Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, Vsevolod Chentsov, told POLITICO.

Still, he added: “Statements by some member states of the need to extend the ban on the export of Ukrainian agrarian production [cause] serious concerns.” Without naming Poland he said that this “politicizes” the practical reality of what is a logistical challenge “jeopardizes the effectiveness of the solidarity lanes.”

Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting



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Chairman FAO: Western powers pressure China’s UN food boss to grip global hunger crisis

ROME, Italy — The Chinese head of a crucial U.N. food agency has come under intense scrutiny by Western powers, who accuse him of failing to grip a global hunger crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Qu Dongyu, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, has alienated the Western powers that are the agency’s main backers with his technocratic leadership style and connections to Beijing that, in their view, have damaged its credibility and capability to mitigate the crisis.

POLITICO has interviewed more than a dozen U.N. officials and diplomats for this article. The critical picture that emerges is of a leader whose top-down management style and policy priorities are furthering China’s own agenda, while sidelining the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February was met with weeks of eerie silence at the FAO, and although the messaging has since changed, Qu’s critics say FAO should be showing stronger political leadership on the food crisis, which threatens to tip millions more people into hunger.

“Nobody actually takes him seriously: It’s not him; it’s China,” said one former U.N. official. “I’m not convinced he would make a single decision without first checking it with the capital.”

In his defense, Qu and his team say a U.N. body should not be politicized and that he’s delivering on the FAO’s analytical and scientific mandate.

Chairman FAO

Qu Dongyu was elected in 2019 to run the Rome-based agency, handing China a chance to build international credibility in the U.N. system, and punishing a division between the EU and the U.S after they backed competing candidates who lost badly. The election was clouded by allegations of coercion and bribery against China.

Now, as he prepares for a likely reelection bid next year to run FAO until 2027, Qu — who describes himself as a conflict-averse “humble, small farmers’ son” — is under intensifying scrutiny over his leadership during the crisis.

After three years of largely avoiding the headlines, Qu drew criticism from countries like France and the U.S. for his sluggish and mealy-mouthed response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a massive exporter of food to developing countries.

The EU and U.S. forced an emergency meeting of the FAO’s Council in the spring in order to pressure the FAO leadership into stepping up to the plate, with Ukraine demanding he rethink his language of calling it a “conflict” and not a war. The communications division was initially ordered to keep schtum about the war and its likely impacts on food supply chains. In May, Ukrainians protested outside FAO HQ in Rome demanding Russia be kicked out of the organization.

At a meeting of the FAO Council in early December, countries like France, Germany and the U.S. successfully pushed through yet another demand for urgent action from FAO’s leadership, requesting fresh analysis of impact of Russia’s war on global hunger, and a full assessment of the damage done to Ukraine’s vast farm system.

China has not condemned Russia outright for invading Ukraine, while the EU and the U.S. use every opportunity in the international arena to slam Moscow for its war of aggression: Those geopolitical tensions are playing out across the FAO’s 194 member countries. Officials at the agency, which has $3.25 billion to spend across 2022 and 2023, are expected to act for the global good — and not in the narrow interest of their countries.

Qu is said still to be furious about the confrontation: “[He] is still upset about that, that really annoyed him,” said one ambassador to the FAO. “He sees the EU as an entity, a player within the FAO that is obstructing his vision.”

Qu featured on a TV screen inside the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

Though Qu has now adapted his language and talks about the suffering being caused by Russia’s war, some Western countries still believe FAO should respond proactively to the food crisis, in particular to the agricultural fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The FAO’s regular budget and voluntary funds are largely provided by EU countries, the U.S. and allies like Japan, the U.K. and Canada. The U.S. contributes 22 percent of the regular budget, compared to China’s 12 percent.

Qu is determined to stick to the mandate of the FAO to simply provide analysis to its members — and to steer clear of geopolitics.

“I’m not [a] political figure; I’m FAO DG,” he told POLITICO in October, in an encounter in an elevator descending from FAO’s rooftop canteen in Rome.

FAO’s technocratic stance is defended by other members of Qu’s top team, such as Chief Economist Máximo Torero, who told POLITICO in May: “You are in a war. Some people think that we need to take political positions. We are not a political entity that is the Security Council — that’s not our job.”

Apparatchik

Qu can hardly be said to be apolitical, as he is a former vice-minister of agriculture and rural affairs of the Chinese Communist Party.

On top of his political background he has expertise in agriculture. He was part of a team of scientists that sequenced the potato genome while he was doing a PhD at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. In an email to POLITICO his professor, Evert Jacobsen, remembered Qu’s “enthusiasm about his country,” as well as is “strategic thinking” and “open character.”

Yet Western diplomats worry that many of the policy initiatives he has pushed through during his tenure map onto China’s foreign policy goals.

They say that the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals have been eclipsed by his own initiatives, such as his mantra of the Four Betters (production, nutrition, environment, life), and Chinese-sounding plans from “One Country, One Priority Product” to his flagship Hand-in-Hand Initiative.

Some Western diplomats say these bear the hallmarks of China’s Global Development Initiative, about which Qu has tweeted favorably.

Detractors say these are at best empty slogans, and at worst serve China’s foreign policy agenda. “If the countries that are on the receiving end don’t exercise agency you need to be aware that these are policies that first and foremost are thought to advance China, either materially or in terms of international reputation, or in terms of diplomacy,” said Francesca Ghiretti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).

Insiders say he’s put pressure on parts of the FAO ecosystem that promote civil society engagement or market transparency: two features that don’t go down well in Communist China. The former U.N. official said Qu had subjected the G20 market transparency dashboard AMIS, housed at FAO, to “increased pressure and control,” causing international organizations to step in to protect its independence earlier this year.

The diplomat said Qu was trying to suffocate the Committee on World Food Security, which invites civil society and indigenous people’s groups into FAO’s HQ and puts them on a near-equal footing with countries. “What has he accomplished in two-plus years? You can get Chinese noodles in the cafeteria,” they said.

Flags at the entrance to the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

But at a U.N. agency that has historically been deeply dysfunctional, Qu is popular among staff members.

“Mr. Qu Dongyu brought a new spirit on how to treat staff and established trust and peace between staff and management,” said one former FAO official.

Even his sharpest critics concede that he has done good things during his tenure. He made a point of shaking every staff member’s hand upon his election, even turning up occasionally unannounced to lunch with them in the canteen that he’s recently had refurbished. There’s also widespread appreciation among agriculture policymakers of the high quality of economic work turned out by FAO, and support for his climate change and scientific agenda.

“The quality of data FAO produces is very good and it’s producing good policy recommendations,” one Western diplomat acknowledged.

FAO play

Three years into his term, there’s a much stronger Chinese presence at FAO and Chinese officials occupy some of the key divisions, covering areas such as plants & pesticides, land & water, a research center for nuclear science and technology in agriculture, and a division on cooperation between developing countries. A vacant spot atop the forestry division is also expected to go to a Chinese candidate.

Experts say those positions are part of a strategy. “China tries to get the divisions where it can grow its footprint in terms of shaping the rules, shaping the action and engaging more broadly with the Global South,” said Ghiretti, the MERICS analyst.

The EU Commission is closely monitoring trends in staff appointments and data collection. “He’s hired a lot of young Chinese people who will fill [the] ranks later,” said an EU diplomat.

Mandarin is heard more than before in the corridors of the Rome HQ, a labyrinthine complex built in the 1930s by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to house its ministry of overseas colonies.

Western diplomats and staffers past and present describe Qu as a poor communicator, who displays little care about engaging with or being accountable to countries and who tends to leave meetings after delivering perfunctory remarks, all of which leaves space for rumor and suspicion to grow.

Even those who acknowledge that Qu has made modest achievements at the helm of FAO still see his leadership style as typical of a Chinese official being kept on a tight leash by Beijing. The EU and U.S. criticized Qu’s move to push back an internal management review that was meant to be conducted by independent U.N. inspectors, and will now likely not emerge until after the next election.

And although FAO is still receiving bucketloads of Western funding, its fundraising drive specifically for rural families and farmers in war-torn Ukraine is still $100 million short of its $180 million target, a pittance in an international context — especially amid deafening warnings of a global food supply crisis next year. 

That’s partly because the U.S. and EU prefer to work bilaterally with Kyiv rather than going through FAO. “This is the time for FAO to be fully funded,” said Pierre Vauthier, a French agronomist who runs the FAO operation in Ukraine. “We need additional money.”

A plaque outside Qu’s fourth floor office at the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

There’s no love lost on Qu’s side, either. In June, he went on a unscripted rant accusing unnamed countries of being obsessed with money, apparently in light of criticism of his flagship Hand-in-Hand Initiative.

“You are looking at money, I’m looking to change the business model because I’m a farmer of small poor, family. You from the rich countries, you consider the money first, I consider wisdom first. It’s a different mentality,” Qu said, before complaining about his own salary being cut.

Asked repeatedly, Qu did not confirm to POLITICO whether he would stand for a second four-year term, but traditionally FAO chiefs serve at least twice and he is widely expected to run. Nominations officially opened December 1. The question is whether the U.S., EU or a developing nation will bother trying to run against him, when his victory looks all but inevitable.

There’s competition for resources between the World Food Programme (WFP), a bastion of U.S. development power, and FAO. A Spaniard, Alvaro Lario, was recently appointed to run the third Rome-based U.N. food agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, while WFP’s chief David Beasley is expected to be replaced by another American next year.

In any case, the countries that Qu will likely count on to be re-elected are not so interested in the political machinations of the West or its condemnation of the Russia’s war in Ukraine, which it seeks to impress upon FAO’s top leadership.

“Our relations with the FAO are on a technical basis and not concerned by the political positions of the FAO. What interests us is that the FAO supports us to modernize our agriculture,” said Cameroon’s Agriculture Minister Gabriel Mbairobe.

Other African countries defend FAO’s recent track record: “They’ve been very, very active, let’s be honest,” said Yaya A.O. Olaniran, Nigeria’s ambassador to the FAO. “It’s easy to criticize.”

This story has been updated.



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