Fostering resilient utilities in an uncertain world: The Water Resilience Assessment Framework

As COP26 kicks off in Glasgow, learn how the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation, CEO Water Mandate, IWMI, Pacific Institute, and World Resources Institute are joining forces to help lay the foundation for a more water-secure and climate-resilient world.

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By John Matthews and Kari Davis, Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA)

As COP26 kicks off in Glasgow, learn how the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation, CEO Water Mandate, IWMI, Pacific Institute, and World Resources Institute are joining forces to help lay the foundation for a more water-secure and climate-resilient world.

Urban water utilities must become more resilient in order to better navigate climate-induced changes in local water supply availability. Photo: Unsplash
Urban water utilities must become more resilient in order to better navigate climate-induced changes in local water supply availability. Photo: Unsplash

The city of San Francisco, California, organized the first public utility climate adaptation conference in 2006. Since then, cities worldwide have engaged in an active debate about the extent and nature of the risks they face from climate change, especially for the water central to their water supply and sanitation systems and the water resources that may be embedded in urban energy systems — often operated in conjunction with water utilities.

Existing and future climate impacts have implications that extend beyond simply looking at the physical risks that a utility may be exposed to. We need to look beyond the obvious impacts, such as drought and flood, and see in what other ways the system is affected.

Climate change and utilities cannot be separated from how we view cities as dynamic, shifting organisms with their own history and trajectory through time. For instance, Corvallis, Oregon — the city where Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA) is based — is relatively small and, as cities go, young; it was founded only in the 1840s. In its short history, Corvallis has already changed names, and, at one point, was briefly the capital and center of politics for the state of Oregon. Originally a farming community, Corvallis founded a college and grew into a university town, which also sparked a regional hub for technology, research, and development. Now, we also have a medical center for a large region that acts as a transport hub between the coast and inland areas. Corvallis’s utilities also reflect its remembrance of the past while embracing the future — the water utility began service about a century ago and has a centralized hub-and-spoke plan with water derived from two rivers that flow through the city, while electricity is now mostly supplied from wind and hydropower and managed through a regional utility.

Contrast Corvallis with London, a city that probably had its first public water service as the Roman town of Londinium, founded during the reign of Julius Caesar two thousand years ago. London saw the first elements of its modern water supply system emerge in the 1660s, also via a hub and spoke system that combined both sewage and stormwater systems.

Even older is the city of Lahore, Pakistan. Lahore stood as an ancient, great city on the shores of the Ravi River, a tributary of the Indus, when Alexander the Great and his army visited three centuries before the Romans invaded Britain. Two millennia before Alexander, the city was part of the great hydraulic Harappan civilization, which was a peer of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Even then, water planning and management was a centralized affair. Lahore’s “utility” then must have included both drinking water and irrigation.

For London, Lahore, and even Corvallis, that long sense of time is important to consider when designing, constructing, and maintaining the systems that enable cities to function, persist, and adjust to new conditions. While Corvallis may not survive 4,500 years as a continuously occupied urban center, cities can endure a very long time, and their histories are shaped in critical ways by their physical infrastructure and management systems. In the words of one team:

Many investment decisions have long-term consequences. Infrastructure in particular can shape development for decades or centuries, a duration that often extends beyond infrastructure’s lifetime because the economic system reorganizes itself around them.

Utilities are especially important for cities, because they express in concrete, steel, stone, electronics, and governance many assumptions about current and future needs, about how institutions function and decisions are made, and what the climate of the future will look like.

Indeed, often these assumptions are wrong. The Harappan civilization appears to have collapsed as a result of both massive flood events and relatively modest declines in precipitation from non-anthropogenic climate change throughout the Indus basin about 2,500 years ago. Could they have made different assumptions? Altered their physical infrastructure? Changed how they operated their existing systems?

Today, the issues cities face for critical systems are essentially the same: What changes can we foresee? Can we prepare for unexpected changes? What can we do now to build resilience to future conditions?

Over the past 15 years, active discussions and experiments around urban resilience have produced a new generation of lessons and insights. AGWA is part of a partnership with International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the Pacific Institute, CEO Water Mandate, and the World Resources Institute (WRI) that has prepared an initial guidance focused on the interaction between climate and water and how we cope with both known risks and harder-to-predict risks.

The Water Resilience Assessment Framework (WRAF) consists of a core document with more detailed guidance for specific audiences, including water and conjoined water-electrical utilities. The WRAF is designed to supplement existing plans and methodologies around planning and sustainability by placing some of the most recent insights around resilient utility management into an operational framework.

The WRAF addresses specific types of issues:

  • What does climate resilience mean in an operational sense?
  • How well will our current system function if spoken (or unspoken!) assumptions are violated?
  • What type of resilience strategy is appropriate for the types of climate change that are being experienced now or that can be expected to occur in the future?
  • How do we measure, track, and evaluate resilience? How do resilience indicators differ from more traditional sustainability, performance, or efficiency indicators?

The WRAF project partners invite you to explore the framework and how it can be applied to your water system. To support implementation, AGWA and its partners are developing a guidance document specific to the water utility sector. As this is a collaborative effort, we welcome your input in the development of this guidance.

To get involved, contact Ashok Chapagain, AKChapagain@pacinst.org.

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