Policy maker

Can Ecologists & Engineers Work Together to Harness Water For The Future?

November 25, 2014

Guest Blogger

The Pangani River in Tanzania is important for many reasons: its three major dams provide 17 percent of the country’s electricity; it sustains thousands of farmers and herders living in the basin; and its flow of fresh water supports humans, industry, and ecosystems. But most interesting might be the innovative water policies that govern withdrawals, infrastructure projects, and ecosystems along its banks.

Climate change and population dynamics could cause trouble for the Pangani Basin and many others like it. More people are expected to depend on the flow of fresh water while at the same time rainfall and glacial meltwater from Mt. Meru, Mt. Pare, and Mt. Kilimanjaro are diminishing.

Around the world, water managers are adjusting to a similar quandary. Precipitation patterns and river flows are becoming more uncertain as the past is no longer a reliable guide for the future. Planners are adjusting to changes in the water cycle by integrating policies with flexible structures and ecosystems.

Flexibility Over Scale

In the November issue of Nature Climate Change, I wrote about how leaders in sustainable water management are finding common ground with two historically antagonistic approaches: engineering and ecology.

I talked with Mark Fletcher, a water engineer and the water business leader at UK-based Arup, a global company of consulting engineers with 14,000 employees. Modular is one way to describe his brand of sustainable water work.

“We had assumed that the world was static,” Fletcher told me. “We knew that the climate was predictable. Due to climate change or due to a changing climate, it is harder to predict things. So rather than build overly conservative monolithic solutions, we now design systems that can be tweaked and twiddled.”

A good example is osmosis desalination. “You literally stack desalination units, much like you would batteries, until you solve your problem,” he said.

From Fletcher’s perspective, the world has no need for more Hoover Dams, given the uncertainty around the global water cycle of the future. I write:

Fletcher favors natural solutions. In New York City, for example, new plans for city orchards and 9,000 grassed bio-swales, which resemble marshy depressions in the land, will slow the flow of storm water from sidewalks to water catchment basins. “Think of them as green sponges all over the city. The water gets soaked up and you avoid pumping every time it rains,” he says. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.” Furthermore, rather than design water treatment plants that can accommodate extreme rainfall, he prefers multiple local responses that can be changed and adapted, much in the way that a Lego building block is removed and added.

Fletcher suggests that the solution to water management under climate change is beyond engineering. That’s why ecologists John Matthews, coordinator of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation, and LeRoy Poff, a professor at Colorado State University, have been leading a team of 27 researchers at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in Maryland. The team includes economists, hydrologists, policymakers, and engineers. Climate change, they say, has prompted the researchers to work together on an integrated approach to freshwater adaptation. Rather than isolating water management issues within a single field, such as engineering or hydrology, the team’s multifaceted work is developing solutions for decision-makers. Think of their combined work as a chemical reaction. Instead of one element, such as engineering, working in seclusion on a freshwater adaptation project, their form of synthesis science means suddenly more ingredients are added to the beaker.

The research team that Matthews and Poff lead identifies markers of resilience of both infrastructure and ecosystems in basins. They are using the analysis so that ecological principles are incorporated into future water management projects from the very beginning.

Resilience markers include variation of flow, seasonal and temperature changes, and connections to flood plains, for instance. The specific indicators vary from river to river, but the principles remain the same.

Matthews says that the Dujiangyan system in China’s Sichuan Province is a model for integrating policies with engineering and ecology in a sustainable way. Built in 256 BC, the water diversion system still operates today.

According to Kathleen Dominique, an environmental economist at OECD, flexible approaches are necessary to adjust to changing conditions at low cost.

For the Pangani Basin, leaders have established ecosystems as a priority, keeping river flow available to wetlands, riparian forests, and mangroves, and the plan is to adjust water policies with the changing needs of communities. Similarly, the European Union’s water directive is now adjusted every six years to examine all changes and uses of rivers, not only those related to climate change.

For a deeper look at how people are working to become more resilient, improve water security, and preserve ecosystems by incorporating ecological principles into water management, read the complete article in Nature Climate Change.

Lisa Palmer is a Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar and freelance journalist.

Sustainable Futures: Designing Dams in the Face of Climate Uncertainty

October 31, 2014

Communications Coordinator

Earlier this month, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) hosted a policy exchange on new decision-making tools for designing sustainable water infrastructure projects. The multi-institutional meeting was motivated by the SESYNC Pursuit “Climate Change & Water Resources Adaptation: Decision Scaling & Integrated Eco-engineering Resilience,” led by John Matthews of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA) and LeRoy Poff of Colorado State University. Representatives from World Bank, University of Massachusetts Amherst, U.S. Geological Survey, Deltares, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) presented on two decision frameworks that integrate stakeholder participation, risk identification, and adaptation into water resource management.

The meeting engaged a diverse community of research, financial, conservation, federal, and regulatory institutions. Attendees included representatives from AGWA, Climate Bonds Initiative, Colorado State University, Conservation International, International Development Research Centre (IDRC), NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, OOSKAnews, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Department of State, and World Wildlife Fund.

The frameworks discussed at the SESYNC meeting—“decision scaling,” introduced by Casey Brown et al., and “adaptation pathways,” introduced by Marjolijn Haasnoot et al.—are decision-making guides. They can assist planners and policy makers in developing water infrastructure plans that sustainably manage water resources for both people and natural ecosystems, as well as protect costly investments. What sets these frameworks apart from conventional decision-making tools is how they integrate future shifts in climate.

“According to our internal rules, any new project—whether it’s related to infrastructure, agriculture, or water—has to be screened for potential climate change impacts,” said Marcus Wijnen, Senior Water Resources Management Specialist at World Bank, “and to be sure that the project is designed in such a way that it considers, adapts to, and potentially mitigates those impacts.”

However, the type and degree of future climate variability is largely uncertain—yet decisions often need to be made before adequate information is available. Accordingly, decision makers need tools to assist with developing water infrastructure plans that are economically and ecologically resilient for years to come, under multiple future scenarios. That’s where decision scaling and adaption pathways come in.

“Infrastructure investments are being made now, but climate conditions are changing,” said Haasnoot, Senior Researcher at Deltares. “One of the main questions policy makers and planners are asking themselves is: given these changes, how can we make robust and flexible decisions so that investments are not a waste of money?”

How the Decision-Making Guides Work

The bottom–up approach of decision scaling begins with stakeholder-driven identification of threats to infrastructure performance (such as flooding, which impacts both human and ecological communities) posed by possible future climate conditions (for example, increased precipitation). Next, integrating information from climate models into this so-called “vulnerability domain” provides a sense of how likely those possible threats and impacts will be problematic. The result is a risk-to-benefit analysis, which more reliably informs water resource development and management decisions to produce sustainable infrastructure over a longer period of time.

The adaptation pathways approach describes an iterative sequence of policy actions or infrastructure investments on an as-needed basis over time. The framework identifies tipping points, or conditions at which an action or investment begins to perform unacceptably. Consequentially, additional actions are needed to once again move toward pre-specified objectives. However, each new action also has its own tipping point, so that a new strategy has to again be created. Adaptation maps (see example below) can be used to prepare a plan for actions to be taken immediately, and for preparations that need to be made in order to be able to implement an action in the future in case conditions change.

Above: Example adaptation pathways map. Source

The Ecology of Infrastructure Design

The Climate Change & Water Resources Adaptation Pursuit has been exploring how ecological considerations can be incorporated into engineering design using the decision scaling framework. The idea is that water infrastructure can (and should) contribute to the alleviation of poverty—e.g., through irrigation, clean water, and energy—and at the same time promote or enhance the health of natural ecosystems. Decision scaling can help planners and policy makers determine how to maintain engineering, economic, and ecological resilience over the long lifetimes of water infrastucture in the face of climate uncertainty.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to solving complex problems at the intersection of human and ecological systems.

Top photo courtesy Airwolfhound via Flickr/Creative Commons

Decision-Support Tools for Pest Control

One of our greatest challenges is increasing agricultural yields while reversing degradation of biodiversity and Earth’s life-support systems. A promising approach that has not yet reached its potential involves managing land to enhance the flow of ecosystem services from natural habitats around farms. In particular, conserving natural habitat to support predators of crop pests is an unrealized win-win for biodiversity and farmers, as arthropod pests destroy 8–15% of major food crops.

Café Scientifique: Inside the Minds of Birds & Bees

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) organizes the Annapolis Café Scientifique—a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology.

Reservations are strongly suggested and sometimes required depending on attendance; please call (410) 626-9796 to guarantee your seat or, importantly, to cancel your reservation.

Café Scientifique: Should Endangered Species Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Listed Species

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) organizes the Annapolis Café Scientifique—a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology.

Reservations are strongly suggested and sometimes required depending on attendance; please call (410) 626-9796 to guarantee your seat or, importantly, to cancel your reservation.

Team Meeting: Ocean Acidification Study

"Using Spatial Data and Analysis to Understand the Human Impacts of Ocean Acidification" Venture meeting

This is a closed meeting for a funded synthesis group of visiting scholars.


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