Audio Interview: Socio-Environmental Resilience

Listen: 33 min.   

Are you looking for some climate hope? Check out this interview with Dr. John Matthews about sustainable water management and the adaptive capacities of both people and planet. 

  • About the Presenters
    John has light skin and brown hair, he stands in a forest

    John H. Matthews

    John has been working at the intersection of water with climate adaptation and resilience since 2007. His work explores how we define, develop, and accelerate the uptake of our emerging set of best practices for climate resilience.

    John started and led WWF’s freshwater climate adaptation program in 2007 before co-founding the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA) in 2010, where he remains the Executive Director. He has led the development of a variety of climate risk reduction methodologies that have been used in dozens of countries, prepared green bond criteria that have certified more...

    John has light skin and brown hair, he stands in a forest

    John H. Matthews

    John has been working at the intersection of water with climate adaptation and resilience since 2007. His work explores how we define, develop, and accelerate the uptake of our emerging set of best practices for climate resilience.

    John started and led WWF’s freshwater climate adaptation program in 2007 before co-founding the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA) in 2010, where he remains the Executive Director. He has led the development of a variety of climate risk reduction methodologies that have been used in dozens of countries, prepared green bond criteria that have certified more than 15 billion USD in water resilience investments across six continents, and advised well over 100 countries on their national climate commitments.

    Current work includes developing a new generation of resilience indicators, leading the development and implementation of a national climate planning tool, working with businesses to incorporate resilience within operations, heading a program to engage macroeconomic planners and central bankers to blend resilience with traditional economic evaluation approaches, and contributing to large-scale technical climate risk assessments.

    Beyond AGWA, John is a Senior Water Fellow at Colorado State University and Water Resources Courtesy Faculty at Oregon State University, an advisor to the Shockwave Foundation, and on the board of Living in Kindness. John received a doctorate in ecology, evolution, and behavioral ecology from the University of Texas, Austin, and a Bachelor of Arts in ethnomusicology from the University of Chicago. Before becoming a freshwater ecologist, John worked as a book editor in publishing for 12 years. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon, with his wife and son.


    Erin Duffy

    Faculty Specialist

    Erin Duffy was a Faculty Specialist at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) from 2019 to 2023. In this role, she supported the communications team in the design and development of communication products that disseminated the vast knowledge created by SESYNC researchers around the world. Inspired by the Center’s diverse and interesting projects and participants, Erin developed a podcast called, Succinct ScienceAudio Interviews from SESYNC, to help integrate intellectually expansive information into everyday life.  

    Passionate about community, individual, and environmental...


    Erin Duffy

    Faculty Specialist

    Erin Duffy was a Faculty Specialist at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) from 2019 to 2023. In this role, she supported the communications team in the design and development of communication products that disseminated the vast knowledge created by SESYNC researchers around the world. Inspired by the Center’s diverse and interesting projects and participants, Erin developed a podcast called, Succinct ScienceAudio Interviews from SESYNC, to help integrate intellectually expansive information into everyday life.  

    Passionate about community, individual, and environmental health and well-being, Erin has worked in a variety of roles, including: environmental educator; marketing associate for a social service organization and community garden coordinator for a food bank, both through Americorps; as well as a caregiver for adults with differing physical and intellectual abilities. 

    Erin earned a bachelor's degree in Environmental Policy and Science, and she has continued to pursue educational opportunities, most recently by becoming a certified yoga instructor and positive psychology practitioner. 

  • Supporting Materials

    Full Transcript:

    Introduction: From more intense wildfires and hurricanes to displacement and increased vulnerability to and from poverty—some effects of climate change are already here. And while there is still much to be done to heal our earth, a poignant question arises: How do we adapt to the atmospheric shifts that are irreversible? How do we make strategic plans for the future amid cascading uncertainties and mounting risks? Can we co-evolve solutions that benefit both humans and nature, utilizing the wisdom and ingenuity of both people and planet? Today on SESYNC Audio Interviews we’re talking to Dr. John Matthews … "We work in this decision space around water and climate. And we think about resilience as the glue between those two domains…"  about his SESYNC work on sustainable water management in a dynamic world. Today, we are talking about socio-environmental resilience.

    Erin: To start us off, a little background on John: He got his PhD in ecology, evolution, and behavioral ecology. But, before that he was actually studying a much different field…

    John: Before that, I actually studied cultural anthropology, ethnomusicology—Chicago Blues. And I like to think that I'm kind of a mixture of both the social and natural sciences in how I approach a lot of problems, a lot of situations.  

    Erin: Awesome that sounds like a lot of fun; can you tell us a little bit about how your interests developed and where you are now?  

    John: Really I went into the NGO world, the nonprofit space, almost immediately from grad school. And that was because I wanted to be quite active in how decisions were made. I was really curious about how major institutions were thinking about infrastructure, about finance, about how water is mixed with other sectors. And in 2010, with a colleague, an economist from the World Bank, Diego Rodriguez, he and I founded a small nonprofit that I'm still the executive director of. It's called AGWA, A-G-W-A, the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation. And we work in this decision space around water and climate. And we think about resilience as the glue between those two domains.

    Erin: Awesome. So, what brought you to SESYNC in particular, and how did your group come together?

    John: That's a great question. The co-PI on our pursuit [Erin: In case you were wondering PI means Principal Investigator, as in they are the leaders of a particular research grant, as opposed to a private investigator, who sleuths out crimes with a magnifying glass. Easily confused.], is another freshwater ecologist, LeRoy Poff at Colorado State. And he’s done a lot of really important research over decades, applied to a lot of practical water management problems about how we think about how we manage ecosystems, especially aquatic ecosystems, in a sustainable way.

    And to answer your question, how did the pursuit come about, LeRoy had been following our work in AGWA pretty closely. We'd been very interested in LeRoy's work, especially around the natural flow regime. [Erin: For those of you wondering what a natural flow regime is, it is not an authoritarian waterway, but the characteristic pattern of a river's flow quantity, timing, and variability.]... And I think both of us, from our separate worlds, had a really strong feeling that ecological science was too often really left out of decision-making processes.  By the time someone came to talk to the ecologist, it was just a little minor adjustment on their project. We felt like we had a lot more to say, especially with the impacts of climate change accelerating, that we needed to find a way to be more relevant. Maybe better listeners too, in terms of other kind of key actors in this space. And so, we tried to design a pursuit that would develop a much better, cleaner, more effective integration with other key disciplines in water resources management.

    Erin: So, what was the central theme or concept you all were investigating in your pursuit?

    John: Oh. I think the key phrase in our pursuit is the idea of eco-engineering. We really felt that the concept of resilience, of climate adaptation, it's very actively evolving. There's really not a single agreed-on definition. But if you were to think about resilience as an archipelago, the two islands that are probably farthest apart are the island with the ecologists and the island with the engineers. And we thought, if we want to try to make significant progress around what sustainable water management means in a dynamic climate,  we needed to maybe try to bring these two groups together in particular.

    And so, the concept there, is that ecologists, we have quite a dynamic, a very moving target view of resilience. We think that ecosystems can evolve quite dramatically over time. Maybe the clearest example would be the shift from an ice age to an interglacial period. Or those kinds of larger-scale climate changes—they're both resilient systems, but they're very different kinds of resilient systems. That might mean a forest becomes a desert, or it might become a wetland, or a completely different kind of forest.

    And then engineers, I think they have a really different perspective. They often have a command and control view. They think about pieces of infrastructure, that they have specific operational parameters, and they want to minimize variation. So it's a much more narrow history. It doesn't matter so much to an engineer. Resilience is kind of almost an absolute perspective for them.

    Erin: Oh, interesting. Okay. So they have very different perspectives on resilience. And then do you have what you would define as a working definition of how you see these two visions of resilience colliding? Or working together, maybe is a better word. How do you define resilience?

    John: Considering that resilience is at the center of my work, I actually spent a lot of time trying to avoid defining it.

    Erin: Okay. (haha.)

    John: I think that there's something to be said for the word resilience, that we may be using the same word, but often in such profoundly different ways that we may be talking past each other.

    Can I tell a story from the pursuit?

    Erin: Yeah! 

    John: I think it's a good illustration of exactly your question. The first day, I have to say, of our very first workshop, LeRoy and I retired for a beer that night, and we were terrified. The day had not gone particularly well. We really felt like there hadn't been common ground between the engineers and ecologists in the room. And we were really concerned. It felt like we were very much talking past each other. And we needed to figure out another way to shake up the way that we were interacting. 

    So, LeRoy took the ecologists into a separate room. I was left with the engineers. I was an exile from the other ecologists. And our goal was to try to come up with: How does an engineer view resilience? How do they define it as tangibly as possible? And how do the ecologists think of it? And then, when we came back together, we'd see if there was some reasonable overlap. And I was really fascinated that the engineers really finished their task in about 10 or 15 minutes. [timer ding sound effect] They said, "We need systems to be reliable. They need to keep meeting their performance objectives. They need to be really robust across a variety of different kinds of operating conditions." And they said, "It doesn't matter if we're talking about the Great Pyramid, it doesn't matter if we're talking about the Brooklyn Bridge, or a water utility; it's all the same.” It doesn't matter scale, time, and history. Pretty much any engineer for the last 2000 years would come up with the same definition.

    And so we talked about other things for an hour and a half, waiting on the ecologists. They were arguing, I think pretty viciously, in the other room, and when they finally came back in, a young ecologist, then with the USGS, now with UC Berkeley, Ted Grantham, went to the whiteboard and he wrote three really interesting things. He wrote connectivity. [scribbling sound effect] He wrote the disturbance regime [scribbling sound effect] and he wrote complexity or heterogeneity [scribbling sound effect]. And he explained each one of those terms. The first one, connectivity, this is how species, how communities, how whole ecosystems even can move around. Is that easy? Is it hard? The second part focused on the disturbance regime. That’s really thinking about, say, when a river is high and low. What are the seasonal precipitation patterns? When does the snow pack melt in the dry season? So that’s almost the pulse of an ecosystem. [Heart beat sound clip] And thus, as the pulse changes, the ecological resilience itself changes.

    And the last part is how complex is the landscape? So if there’s something maybe negative, like a fire that happens in one place, are there reservoirs that can recede or reinvigorate that disturbed patch? And is there variation across the landscape? And a more complex or less complex landscape will have really big differences in its resilience as well.

    And the fascinating part was one of the engineers, Casey Brown, he jumped up and he said, “I’ve worked with ecologists for years. I think of myself as a green engineer. But mostly, they’re really a pain in the ass to work with, and they give me 200 things that I need to worry about. But those are three things that I can measure, I can put into a model, and I can design a system based on it. And that was when LeRoy and I looked at each other and we knew that the rest of the pursuit was going to be okay, that we actually had found that common space.

    ~ Transition music ~ 

    Erin: And would you mind saying a little bit more about the different expertise that were represented? So was it just strictly ecologists and engineers? Was there any other people in the mix?

    John: That’s a great question. So, we had four workshops. But the range of variation that we had was massive. The first workshop really included and focused on engineers and ecologists, but after that it actually started to become much more varied, because we were looking at other parts of the decision-making process. If you're going to design a hydropower facility, if you're going to design a water utility or irrigation project, who are the kinds of decision-makers that are involved in that? So we had, even in our first workshop, a very prominent Guatemalan engineer from the World Bank who was there. We had people who were involved in directing international aid, like our representatives from the US State Department who attended. We had representatives from the Dutch Water Infrastructure Ministry, the [Rijkswaterstaat], who appeared. Hydrologists, a variety of economists and finance specialists. So people that could really add their component of that decision-making process to help us articulate this conjoined definition of resilience. They could make it really practical, that people could really bring into their own institutions. We were not just trying to evolve the idea, we were trying to socialize it.

    Erin: If I'm understanding it correctly, you want to focus on water infrastructure projects that have ecological and engineering resilience built in. So could you give us an example, maybe of some projects you've worked on recently or are working on or could be in the future, where you see your work being applied?

    John: I can give you a really good example. One of the institutions that ended up becoming really important for us over the full pursuit was the US Army Corps of Engineers. And there was a Peruvian engineer named Guillermo Mendoza, what he came to understand about our pursuit was that it is really about how you think about trade-offs. And that in effect, engineers tend to simplify problems. A simple system to them is effectively a resilient system. And you try to make it narrower and narrower on how you define a problem. Whereas an ecologist would say, "Actually, a more complicated system is actually more resilient. It has more redundancies, it has more overlaps. It's like a knot that when you pull harder on, it actually gets tighter and becomes stronger."

    So those are very different views, but engineers, because they're simplifying things, they often leave out the ecological pieces. And if they could bring those in, if they could see that when they make a decision about the design or placement or the operations for a project, that it has important ecological repercussions, and that they're more clear. And it's not trying to assign a financial value to an ecosystem's service. It's actually saying, "Does the ecosystem itself work better, or less well, or about the same as it did because of the way we've designed the project?" [light bulb sound effect.]

    So Guillermo, actually he was one of the first to really apply our framework. He was brought in with the main US development agency, USAID, Agency for International Development, to work in a project in northern Thailand, a city called Udon Thani. It's the second-largest city in Thailand after Bangkok. It's up on the Chinese border, right on the Mekong River. And it's a city that's growing explosively. Because it's on the Chinese border, it's a major transport hub for north and south. Because it's on the Mekong, it's a major transport hub for east and west too. And he was brought in as an advisor to the mayor, to the city council, and they said, "We're concerned. This is a place where we intensively use water resources. We have hydropower here, we have rice irrigation. We can navigate as a port on the Mekong. We also have flood problems here. And how do we think about all of these?" And as an engineer, Guillermo's first response is to treat all of those as separate problems. But as an ecological resource, I think really deeply informed by our pursuit, he said, "Actually, those are really common problems, because water and freshwater ecosystems are what connect all of them. And we need to think about the trade-offs between all of them."

    And when he suggested that to the mayor and the city council, the mayor actually said, "I want to add something else to the mix. I want to make sure that my kids, when I think about where they want to live when they grow up, that they want to stay here. That this is actually a really nice place to live. And I think that means bringing green into our city. We don't want it to look like Bangkok. We don't want to look like a mega city. We want to look like a nice place. A green place."

    And the design that they ended up coming up with to try to balance all of these trade-offs was to build a whole network of urban lakes across the city that serve as both storage, that serve as flood control systems, that they really help balance the trade-offs between these different sectors of energy and agriculture, disaster recovery. But it's also improved actively the lives of the people who live there. It's made Udon Thani, I think long-term, a much more viable, more beautiful place to live.

    Erin: When you said lakes, that reminded me of when I was out west recently in Colorado in a place called Lakewood. And I'm just curious, do you have any applications in the US? Maybe specifically the West? I know we have a lot of water problems going on out there.

    John: Absolutely. Yes, this approach is absolutely relevant inside the US and has been used in the US. In fact, by our count, it's been used in at least 30 countries so far. And one of the key products from our pursuit was many of the key actors in our pursuit immediately began to work on a broader framework for resilient water management that's called CRIDA Climate Risk Informed Decision Analysis. It was published by a branch of the UN, UNESCO, in 2018. But the Rijkswaterstaat; a think tank in the Netherlands, Deltares, that was also very involved in our pursuit; and the US Army Corps of Engineers and AGWA were all the key authors and actors in the development of CRIDA.

    So, in terms of the West right now, I'm sure you're thinking about the massive drought that we're experiencing in the West, this extreme 1200-year water scarcity event. [You may be familiar with the fact that this winter, tons of rain and snow hit California. And for the most part this is good news, but, as John will go on to explain, this is rather unsurprising as the effects of climate change will, in fact, make wetter years wetter and dryer years dryer. Additionally, these types of extremes will make the management of water all the more important.] How do we think about what resilience means in the face of events like that? Well, interestingly, the California Department of Water Resources, about three years ago, a little to our surprise, without telling us, they adopted CRIDA as their primary water management approach. And for two other state agencies as well.

    And a really key element, when we look at how climate change is interacting with the water cycle, is that it's very difficult to predict what's going to happen. The uncertainty levels are really high. And one response, I'd say the response of a lot of institutions in the US, is to say, "Well, let's just keep using the same decision-making process that we did in the past." But CRIDA really encourages a different approach. It says, "Actually, let's think about the different trajectories that we could be on, the range of experiences that we may be going through, especially over longer time frames. Not just 10 or 20 years, but maybe 50 or 100 or 200 years." 

    And in that sense, CRIDA is very powerful, because what it does is it helps frame out a set of choices. It says, "Let's prepare as decisively as we can for the impacts that we know that are going to happen, but we also need to leave room for maneuver." And often, that room for maneuver, that's how we deal with the uncertainties that we're facing. For instance, there's a paper that just came out earlier this summer that suggests that not only are the water scarcity problems in the West going to be worse, but that we could actually start to see super extreme flooding that may actually be exacerbated by the drought. So, in effect, receiving potentially meters of rain in the space of a few weeks in many parts of the very arid West. So how do you prepare for that, for extreme drought and extreme flooding?

    And that's actually where ecosystems become much more important, and we need to understand their capacities. California, in one of the pilot studies for CRIDA, did something I thought that was kind of brilliant and bold, that really reminded me a lot of the Udon Thani case. They looked at one river basin, the Merced River in northern California. And that's a system that, much like a lot of the West, you have a long dry season in late spring into early fall. And most of the water that we see, at least in the surface at that point, it comes from snow pack. It comes from melting frozen winter precipitation. And that's going away pretty rapidly. We have precipitation that's still falling in the winter, but it's falling as rain, not as snow. And so that doesn't accumulate. And what that means is that in many places in the West, the dry season is indeed getting drier, but the wet season is actually having more flash floods and more flood damage.

    And just like in Udon Thani, the traditional approach by engineers, by engineers, by water management authorities, disaster authorities, is to say, "Those are two different problems." And CRIDA helped California see, "Actually, they're part of the same problem." That we need to link the floods and the droughts in the same place to their common source, which comes from the water itself. And they developed a system that's called Flood MAR. MAR is an acronym for Managed Aquifer Recharge. What that really means is by working with local landowners in California, especially farmers, they located parts of the landscape that were more likely to recharge groundwater, the aquifers. And they would steer the floodwaters to those areas so that it can increase infiltration. Basically, moving the storage in the system from snow pack to our groundwater, from one nature-based solution to another nature-based solution. Never building a dam for storage, never pouring concrete for it, but really working with ecosystems and enhancing ecological resilience for these systems. And it's been successful enough that in California that something like 15 or 17 other river basins in California adopted this approach last January. [Erin: So I don’t know about you, but I was super curious, like how did they steer floodwater without pouring concrete? So, I looked it up and according to the California Department of Water Resources’ paper on Flood MAR, and the Merced River case study that John was talking about, they said that in this instance, existing infrastructure, including already established dams and channels, were used to divert the flood water to agricultural areas that are suitable for groundwater recharge. They also say that while many areas are able to use pre-established or modified facilities, there may still be a need to create new conveyance facilities in some areas.  

    Erin: What would you use to describe as the methods for creating these frameworks and the work that you do?

    John: Beyond the sheer fear of failure? I think this is maybe where a little bit of my background in anthropology comes up. If the outcome that we're hoping for is a new set of choices that help us navigate into the future, I think where that really comes from is by bringing together more diverse stakeholders right at the beginning of the process. [Erin: Ok, let’s talk for a moment about who these diverse stakeholders could be. He already spoke about the fact that in their work they brought together ecologists, engineers, as well as policy makers, hydrologists, economists, etc. But it’s important to note that the framework they created utilizes a bottom-up approach, which means it also includes people that actually utilize a water resource in a particular area. This could include indigenous or marginalized groups.]  The way that we've made most of our resource management decisions, really for centuries, if not much longer, is a very centralized process. We have some guy, it's usually a guy at the top of the pyramid, that says, "This is what our problem is. This is what we're going to do." And then turns towards an engineer and says, "Go do it." And that reinforces this tendency in engineering to want to simplify problems. What we saw in Udon Thani, what we tried to capture in CRIDA, what we're starting to see in California and other places that have used CRIDA, our SESYNC-informed process, is to step back and actually say, "If we bring more people in at the beginning, we get a much richer sense of what the problem looks like."

    What we really need to do is we need to have a shared sense of what's possible. What does resilience look like? Can we define it collectively? And that's where CRIDA's main focus is on technical decision-makers. And it tries to help someone who has no background in dealing with stakeholders articulate people that are maybe from all parts of a community, all levels of decision-making, to say, "I need to turn their definitions of success and failure into performance indicators that I can measure, that I can then implement into a plan or an operation or a design." So that actually is very critical, trying to open the room right up at the beginning and make it, I think, a more inclusive and shared process.

    Erin: Awesome. In pursuit of transparency, are there any limitations to your work, or any places that you see, in the future, it would be great to improve this? 

    John: Sure. Well, I'm personally involved in a number of CRIDA projects, and I just got back earlier this year from a multi-week trip to Southern Africa, for instance. We've been working on a number of CRIDA projects in South Africa, in Zimbabwe. And one of the things that we've become really interested in is how do we make those initial families of indicators that Ted Grantham articulated right in that first SESYNC workshop; connectivity, the disturbance regime, heterogeneity? How do we actually make those into next-generation performance indicators, something that we can really manage? And the reason is that we really measure, still, sustainability and resilience using 19th-, maybe even 18th-century qualities, like water quantity, water quality. And those are not how ecosystems think. An ecosystem thinks in the language of connectivity, in the language of the flow regime. And we're imposing this engineering language on ecosystems in a way to try to manage them. And I think, honestly, what we're trying to do is we're trying to use 19th century indicators to measure what is in effect a 22nd-century problem about climate resilience.

    So, a lot of our work right now is to try to articulate, in a much clearer, distinct way, what ecological resilience indicators we need to very specifically measure over large landscapes that can help inform the choices that we present to stakeholders, to decision-makers so they have a better idea about what we can leave behind as the climate continues to evolve, what we need to be able to embrace or prepare ourselves for as the large impacts of climate change continue to accrue. 

    Erin: What is one big takeaway you had from your SESYNC project? 

    John: Well, one of the things that we really started discussing in a formal way, in an explicit way, is the gap that exists between what ecology knows about dynamic ecosystems and the way that we usually manage those ecosystems. And I'll give you a quick example. The way that we manage ecosystems is often we pick a date in the past and we say, "That's our baseline," or we say, "That's when the ecosystem was in a better place." And so we try to steer most of our targets back to that place in the past. And climate change really undercuts that idea. It's a fundamental challenge to it. And honestly, as a scientist, I think it makes me have to be a better ecologist, because if I think about the last 5,000, 10,000, 50,000 years, ecosystems are incredibly dynamic, and they reorganize themselves constantly. And climate change just puts that reorganization process on steroids.

    So, if we think about what's happening, the language of climate change, we often talk about ecological loss, about the destruction of ecosystems. And there are things that are happening like that. But if we look at, say, the big fires that have happened in Queensland in Australia, the big fires in California in recent years, now that's the ecosystem saying it needs to change. It needs to become something else. When we lose snowpack or we lose a glacier, it's not like there's no ecosystem there. Actually, it's an ecosystem that's becoming a grassland and maybe a forest. That's what we see in a place like Glacier National Park over the last few decades. And how we manage these ecosystems forward so that as they evolve, that we are actually making decisions that build in resilience to them, I think is one of our real goals. And that's what I'm really hoping that these new ecological resilience indicators can help fuel, that they can help enable.

    Erin: So maybe just one last question. What do you love about the work that you do?

    John: There are two things I really like about it. One is that intellectually, it's really stimulating. These are new problems. They're different problems. As a biologist, I think if Darwin was here, he would be really interested in it as a challenge, as a problem, and he would have something useful to say.

    But I also think about my son. I think about young professionals that I meet all the time. I think about the people who are going to come after the kids we see today. I feel like these are the emerging issues that we have to have really clear answers so that we don't need to refight old battles, or because we're not using good, richer science, that we're maybe making their choices more constrained or harder. And we don't also give them a sense of loss. I think if we say ecosystems are reorganizing, that sounds really different than if we tell a kid that this ecosystem is dying. And honestly, I think it's more accurate, and it gives them a sense of agency in their own future that they want to be able to be engaged in. So, I think it’s a combination of interesting, but also profoundly, even spiritually relevant right now that keeps me fresh in this work.

    Erin: Awesome. Well, thanks so much, John. This has been fun and super interesting, and thank you for the work that you do. It’s super important. So, I appreciate you taking the time.

    John: Thank you so much, Erin. Appreciate it.

    Thanks for listening and be sure to join us next time as we talk with Dr. Lori Peek about natural hazards and socio-environmental disasters. I promise it’s a good time. Okay, bye!     

John H. Matthews, Alliance for Global Water Adaptation