Take a fluid approach to build fresh water resilience

Water is a dynamic and variable resource, with shifting and changing states and flows. In one of our more foolish endeavors, however, rather than embrace this dynamism, humans have continually tried — and failed — to control water. We succeed — for a time. Sometimes even for decades. But these are pyrrhic victories, and water always wins.

This reality has yet to be fully accepted, particularly by those directing investments in water management and infrastructure.

We have built up and often inhabit areas where flooding is a regular occurrence. We continue to farm in regions prone to drought, and, at great effort and expense, attempt to divert water to places it is not meant to go, or away from areas to which it naturally flows.

Why worry? Because these artificial solutions create vulnerabilities that are being rapidly exposed as water supplies grow more scarce. We must be smarter.

New approach

Now, with new technological capacity to track water flows and varying supplies, we can be. Given what we increasingly recognize about our changing climate, and the extremes of drought and flood that result, it’s clear that we need a new approach to how we invest in water management.

This new approach is particularly needed among those directing humanitarian and development funding. Think for a moment about the billions of dollars delivered as development assistance to water stressed regions, and the billions more in humanitarian aid when vulnerable communities succumb to an extreme weather event.

Humanitarian aid is of course essential to lessen the impact of and support recovery from such events. Yet we know this approach will only get so far: a slow return to normal, followed by exposure to bigger and more frequently recurring events is the opposite of progress towards our common development aims.

A 21st century approach to water and to development is one that builds resilience. This means that we look for ways in which people at risk could actually thrive under recurrent water challenges — to anticipate, mitigate and rise above floods, rather than being swept away by them. Short-term tactics such as investment in early warning systems, and predictive models that provide for resilience planning and response — from cropping systems, to infrastructure, to urbanization can make the difference between disaster and development.

Now is the time to design around natural cycles, but what’s also needed is a new way to minimize known risks that hamper resilience. People living in disaster-prone areas know the risks and they likely have the solutions at hand, too. But they may lack the means to put them into action. This local knowledge is typically overlooked under current models of planning and spending. That, too, must change.

‘Better equipped’

Understanding that our conventional solutions are not suited to future challenges is key to progress. Convened by The Rockefeller Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development, in partnership with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the Global Resilience Partnership was launched to tackle these issues, to question why mistakes continue to be made, and ultimately to be a brave agent of change for those who most need it. As such, we have focused on building resilience in the Sahel, Horn of Africa and South and Southeast Asia. The aim is that people who make their home in these areas are better equipped to build a more secure and prosperous future.

Only by doing things differently can we deliver real change at scale. To support this, GRP opened a Water Window Challenge, backed by a $10 million commitment from the Z Zurich Foundation. It delivers results for both communities and a business partner by awarding up to $1 million in grants for teams offering innovative solutions to issues affecting flood prone communities.

The proposals are innovative and compelling, with a range of groups submitting technologically savvy resilience solutions, anchored in understanding of the local context and indigenous knowledge. The proponents demonstrate a commitment to transforming our response to flooding — from recovery to resilience. I look forward to seeing how these ideas advance and how many people they can help in the coming years.

So, what does a resilient future look like? In the future, the shocks and stresses that characterize life today — yet which are currently considered anomalies — must be integrated into thoughtful design as a new norm. This will enable us all to better anticipate, prepare for and thrive when faced with extreme events.

The reality of floods, droughts, and coastal storms must be built into design, planning and investment practice. We know too much today about how weather cycles and water flows work. We cannot continue to build for the past and expect a better future. But by acting with a resilience mindset, we will be prepared for whatever comes our way.