How does improved water stewardship fit into cooling our planet? How well were the water-climate connections made at the recent Copenhagen climate deliberations?

If you’re like me, you only have a lay person’s understanding of ecology — and global politics for that matter. But I do know that the CO2 reduction and carbon sequestration strategies that were batted around in Denmark — caring for our tropical forests and fighting desertification, for example — will require copious amounts of clean water.

I’m beginning to understand that the role of water in climate change is not just about adapting to accelerating droughts and floods. Michal Kravcik, a Slovakian hydrologist, said in advance of the Copenhagen talks, “My expectations are simple: to incorporate in the Copenhagen Protocol a mechanism of using water for recovery of the climate … Until now, all initiatives for solution of climatic changes addressed only CO2 reduction.”

Kravcik’s research suggests that climate stabilization requires ensuring that water is absorbed into the earth. That absorption and the subsequent recharging of groundwater reserves prevent landscapes from drying and allows water to play its essential temperature regulating role.

What’s becoming clearer is that getting to 350 parts per million of CO2 isn’t a goal that can be separated from careful and massive restoration of the earth’s ailing watersheds. And that means grappling with thorny questions of who owns and manages the water commons we all share — a conversation unfortunately not had in Copenhagen.

That’s not a complaint; it makes a lot of sense that emissions reduction was the principal focus at the climate talks — and truly tragic that nations didn’t take the necessary bold steps in that area. But water can’t remain at the edges of the climate change conversation for very long. It’s too important in bringing the earth’s climate back into balance.

Our well-intentioned attempts at climate correction are hurt by not looking at the full picture. Salvation is much more likely when our remedial steps are based on basic principles of ecology — inter-relationship — not of a separate air or water or forest program.

What steps can we take towards this kind of holistic climate stabilization strategy that revives water’s critical role in cooling our planet? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Build on Michal Kravcik’s research. It makes intuitive sense that water facilitates cooling — just think about how you pour it into your car’s radiators. But let’s nail down water’s specific contribution to global cooling and come up with a specific goal for hydrological health akin to the very tangible and campaignable 350 parts per million for the atmosphere.
  2. This hydrological health relies on health watersheds. Maude Barlow proposes declaring not only water, but watersheds themselves, as a commons so that property rights don’t disrupt ecosystem health and a water-cooled planet.
  3. We must push back on climate change mitigation strategies that don’t depart from a holistic understanding of the planet’s interdependent ecosystems. For example, it makes little sense to have a forest-based, carbon sequestration strategy unless the water necessary for forest life is safeguarded.
  4. Ensuring that adequate water is available to cool the earth means to take a hard look at current water use and abuse. We must hold industry, agriculture, and sprawling municipalities to sustainable water use and non-contamination standards — which in many cases simply means implementing existing water and public health regulations.
  5. Our actions ought to be informed by a worldview that holds that water is a commons shared equally by all of humanity and all of nature. That means proposing models of water ownership and management compatible with a commons concept — heavy on citizen engagement and light on privatization.

Water activists like Anil Naidoo of the Blue Planet Project were vocal in Copenhagen to make the climate-water link. The Copenhagen Water and Climate Justice Statement’s call to action begins, “Whereas the abuse, over extraction and displacement of water to promote a global economy based on unlimited growth and corporate power is a major cause of climate change … “

There’s clearly much to be learned from the Copenhagen experience. It’s a good time to step back and hammer out new strategies. Managing water as a commons is one important step towards a healthy climate. It not only makes a lot of ecologic sense, but may make good movement-building sense as well. Imagine the power of the climate change movement when it includes not only associations of water engineers — but 6 billion water consumers worldwide.