Chapter 3 Living with Uncertainty

3.1 Waters Running Uphill: Paradigm Shifts in Water Management

The call to start adapting to climate change comes at a time when a fundamental shift in water management is already underway. A wide range of economic and societal changes are currently taking place, influencing the demand, supply and use of water resources. Water management has to deal with these new risks and new uncertainties. In recent decades, a paradigm shift has occurred in the water sector. Increasingly, sub-sector based policies, planning and supervision is being replaced by more integrated approaches to water resources management. One of the main drivers behind this paradigm shift is the population growth and rising levels of water demand. The conventional “command and control” approach to water management has become less effective. Larger numbers of people are at risk from floods and drought, and do not have access to safe drinking water supplies or sanitation. This is increasingly considered unacceptable in many countries.

There is thus a growing awareness that water supply to households, industry, farmers, tourism, and the transport sector, as well as for the maintenance of river ecosystems, need to be dealt with in a more integrated manner. The more integrated approaches to water resources management utilize different institutions and people from a range of disciplines working together to solve complex allocation and acccess issues. They encourage different levels of government to become more connected and responsive to internal and societal demands, and support engaging water-users in decision-making.


An ecosystem approach is emerging as a promising approach to dealing with integration and sustainabilty of water management. It considers the use of a wider variety of management tools and options. In its application it is promoting greater efficiency in water use and controlling the amount of withdrawals. It also deploys alternative non-structural measures to cope with floods and droughts. Increased control and regulation of emissions of pollutants into surface and ground waters are another characteristic of this management approach.

The need for an ecosystem approach to water management is now increasingly being recognised amongst water professionals. The approach takes into account the role of environmental goods and services, incorporates knowledge about the functioning of the entire catchment ecosystem into planning and management, and focuses on managing both water and land resources within catchments and river basins. It explicitly recognises the need to maintain river ecosystem health, for example through the protection of vegetation cover in upper-catchments, the maintenance of river flow for people downstream, or the reduction of pollution for good water quality.


Equity - water management activities enhance equitable distribution of costs and benefits from water resources use and management and explicitly include activities to alleviate poverty and create a gender balance.

Efficiency - management of scarce water resources places an emphasis on the most efficient use and reflects the full value of the resource, including market values, ecosystem values and socio-cultural values.

Sustainability - the water management regime endures and supports self-sustaining changes in water management, including those to adapt to changing conditions.

Legitimacy - water management institutions are open, transparent, representative and have a sound legal basis while their decisions and actions are seen as legitimate and fair by all stakeholders.

Accountability - water policies, responsibilities and actions are decided and implemented in a transparent and accountable way and lead to clear, effective, fair and legitimate uses of water resources.

Subsidiarity- water management institutions devolve decision-making authority to the lowest appropriate level, ensuring that the power and resources to make such decisions meaningfully are similarly developed.

Participatory - all stakeholders are given the opportunity to participate in water resources planning and management decision making and to become involved in reducing water conflicts.8,9

The emphasis on maintaining freshwater ecosystem functionality is not based solely on intrinsic values of ecosytems. It stems also from the fact that people benefit directly from the goods and services these ecosystems provide. Healthy freshwater ecosystems can buffer against heavy rainfall events and thus help in managing flood risks. Managing upper-watershed forests wisely can reduce sediment loads or lower peakflows, which benefits people living downstream. Identifying and zoning high-risk areas is a measure deployed increasingly in some countries to prevent construction and reduce flood damage. In Switzerland, for example, the relicensing of dams is now being linked to the development of “green” hydropower. To cover the costs of the minimal upgrades required, dam owners invest beyond this minimum to qualify for green-power certification that would increase the unit price they can charge for the electricity generated.10 Investing in the maintenance or restoration of ecosystem services is now recognized to yield significant benefits.

3.2 Decision Deadlines Facing Uncertain Futures

Managing risk has long been a part of the development and management of water resources. Risks are inevitable given that water is a resource that varies in terms of its geographic range and temperal availability. Risks within the water sector include both resource risk and enterprise risks.11 Resource risks include those natural or human-induced risks, such as of the effects of an unsecure supply, water quality, and extreme weather events, public on health and safety. Enterprise risks are those faced by water management entities in undertaking their work. These can include finance and market risks, political risk and labour risk. Such risks can be modelled using historical trends with measurable probabilities being attributed to them.

Responding to the risks from climate change poses a particular problem, however. Most societies will place short-term economic growth ahead of what many still perceive to be a more intangible long-term problem. It is only when people and societies are made aware of immediate economic threats from climate change and climate variability, and the important role water resources and their management can play in reducing these threats, that significant action to adapt can be expected.


The IUCN's strategy on water resources envisages a world in which the benefits of freshwater and related ecosystems to humans are optimised, while the intrinsic values of these systems are respected and preserved. In this world, the mutual dependence of people and ecosystems is accepted, and unavoidable loss of ecosystems' functions and biodiversity is more than compensated through restoration.

This is a world in which environmental security is guaranteed as people increasingly accept personal responsibility for the conservation and wise use of freshwater and related ecosystems. The maintenance of environmental security is based on integrated management of all land and water use through an ecosystem-based approach within river and drainage basins, including associated marine and coastal zones.

It is also a world in which social security is strengthened by providing everyone with equitable access to and responsibility for safe and sufficient water resources to meet their needs and rights, by means that maintain the integrity of freshwater and related ecosystems.

Finally, it is a world where ecosystems are managed and used in a fair and equitable manner to achieve economic security. Efforts are made to rectify and reverse existing trends in demographics, consumption patterns and human-nature relationships, in order to ensure that the current and future demands for water resources can realistically be achieved without compromising the ecological, biological and hydrological basis and integrity of freshwater and related ecosystems.9

Until recently, there has been little open discussion on these types of risks. Public involvement in the decision-making process on water issues has been minimal. Water professionals have usually made decisions about key security and safety issues along technical lines and using “professional norms”. For example, dams and reservoirs were often designed to withstand a 50-year flood or drought. But, there was little economic or social justification for why such an event was included in the design criteria. Other decisions about risk were made as a result of a political bargaining process among different water management agencies or private entities.


Beyond risk lies uncertainty. While risk can be quantified, uncertainty cannot 12.Uncertainty applies to situations in which the world is not well-charted; it relates to questions of how to deal with unprecedented events or situations. In such cases, past observations offer little guidance for uncertain futures. For water professionals, climate change is a new source of uncertainty. The current uncertainty about trends and changes in specific regions and basins requires management approaches that incorporate a higher degree of flexibility. This can be done, for example, through creating “buffers” based on (artificial) groundwater recharge, reforesting catchments to retard runoff, or restoring wetlands to store floodwaters.

While no approach can make the challenges of uncertainty go away, reducing the level of uncertainty and tailoring strategies to that uncertainty can help lead to more informed and confident decisions. It is often possible to identify clear trends, such as reduced rainfall, that can help to define the range of future climatic conditions. There are also usually a host of factors that are currently unknown but are in fact knowable, that is, those that could be known if the right analysis was carried out. Examples include runoff variations and seasonality of water abstractions and increased demand due to projected population growth. Maintaining and improving monitoring networks and forecast systems are essential if these aspects of uncertainty are to be adequately addressed.


Floods frequently inundate large parts of Bangladesh. Since the 1980s a wide range of stakeholders in the country has been discussing the development and implementation of the Bangladesh Flood Action Plan. Two opposing flood management approaches have dominated the debate – a capital-intensive “high-tech” intervention and a “living-with-floods” approach. So far, however, little attention has been given to addressing the vulnerability of the people that are living in the flood-prone areas. The people's concern is not so much the floods per se, as they also benefit from these through the good harvests that follow the floods. But, their livelihoods are particularly vulnerable to droughts with low-rainfall monsoons in summer and normal dry winters that lead to low yields outside irrigated areas. In this sense there is more of a need to deal with water shortages and drought control than channelling large amounts of money into flood prevention. Addressing climate variability by directly linking it with people's vulnerability is likely to produce different approaches that may be less costly and more effective.13


France has a long record of land-use planning, including defining submersible areas prone to flooding and removing vegetation to allow the free flowing of water in river channels. In 1987, a new law was enacted that required risk exposure plans to be developed indicating non-building areas, building areas under constraints, and building areas that could expect flooding. In 1995, further legislation called for development of 10-year plans focused on river management and protection against floods. Special Plans for the Prevention of Risks (PPRs) had to be produced by high-risk communities within five years. Only 10% of the communities at risk had PPR documents approved by 1998. By 2002, these had increased to 30%

Major obstacles in the production of PPRs include the cost of the studies, a lack of expertise, poor definition of the responsibility of the local authorities vis-à-vis the central government, and the consequences for property values and building rights of identifying risk zones. Recent floods in southern France have hastened work to produce the PPRs. France's experience shows that even a relatively simple measure to define risk zones at a local level can take at least a decade to be put in place nationwide. Capacities, financial resources, institutional and political constraints often hinder a faster process, even if there is the political will at the national level.14

For water professionals, incorporating uncertainty in their policy making work is no easy task. If handled incorrectly, it can lead to measures that neither defend against threats nor take advantage of the opportunities. At one extreme, assuming the world is entirely unpredictable can lead water managers to ignore the issue, and simply throw up their hands in defeat. At the other extreme, risk-averse water managers who think they are in very uncertain environments might avoid making choices, and fall into decision paralysis. Making systematically sound strategic decisions under conditions of uncertainty requires a different approach: an approach that avoids both defeatism and paralysis. In spite of the challenges that uncertainty brings, water managers should be able to identify a range of potential outcomes or even a set of scenarios, based on available climate modelling information. Narrowing the field of possibilities can be an extremely powerful tool in reducing the level of uncertainty.

Given the nature of uncertainty, expert judgements should be complemented with stakeholder inputs to arrive at political decisions about management interventions. With increasing uncertainty, stakeholder involvement will be essential to build a wide acceptance for sharing the potential burden and benefits of the impacts of climate change on water resources.

3.3 Strategic Priorities for Adaptation

Improving the way societies deal with water-related risks and uncertainties will be critical for adapting the water sector to increased climatic variability and change. A key goal for adaptation in the water sector will be to reduce the vulnerability of societies and people to the effects of this increased variability and change. Below are three strategic priorities for achieving this.

Strategic Priority 1. Reducing the vulnerabilities of people and societies to shifts in hydro-meteorological trends, increased variability and extreme events

Climate-related floods and droughts pose a serious threat to national economies and sustainable development. Managing risks and dealing with uncertainty from these events can bring immediate benefits to people's welfare and help minimize the loss of life and damage to properties and other assets. The most vulnerable groups within societies should receive particular attention.


Managing risks and dealing with uncertainty from increased climate variability and climate change can reduce the vulnerability of people and societies. It can bring direct and immediate benefits, including minimizing the likelihood of crop failure, floodplain degradation, flooding or drought. Both large-scale and small-scale interventions have their place in this and can boost local economies, making it more of an immediate political priority. In many cases, these investments will be essential to improve environmental conditions, increase the standard of living, create jobs and increase income. Healthy people and ecosystems, jobs and higher incomes are critical aspects of reducing vulnerability and increasing society's capacity to cope with extreme events and adapt to change.

Adapting to climate change can also involve the creation of buffers. This includes adjusting the margins to maintain safety and reliability, for instance by topping-up current water reserves, increasing the margins of operations, and changing design criteria. A high priority needs to be placed on meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. Flood and drought recovery and preparedness strategies need to be designed taking into account the need to reduce the risks to vulnerable segments of the population. The protection of major assets that generate wider public benefits should also be a priority. Only by addressing the most vulnerable countries and societal groups can the adaptation of water management to climate change contribute effectively to the wider objectives of poverty alleviation and sustainable development.

Examples of actions:

I. Policy and planning:

II. Capacity building and awareness:

III. Measures and direct interventions:

Strategic Priority 2. Protecting and restoring ecosystems that provide critical land and water resources and services

Ongoing degradation of water and land resources threatens the continued production of goods and services in river basin ecosystems. Protection and restoration of river basin ecosystems is urgently needed to maintain and restore natural capacities that support the protection against increased climate variability and extreme events.


Water forms an integral part of catchment ecosystems, which provide goods and services for downstream uses. Forested slopes can provide base flow water supply during the dry season, certain wetlands can store floodpeaks, and rivers can cater to the needs of those engaged in both professional and recreational fishing. The ongoing degradation of water resources and catchments threatens the continued provision of these services. Sediments from eroding deforested slopes can block rivers. Polluted and obstructed waterways contribute to disappearing fish stocks. Floodplains cut off from the river no longer ease the floodpeaks that threaten economic centres. If continued unabated, the declining size and quality of catchment ecosystems will reduce the benefits they provide and expose local populations to more severe and frequent water-related hazards.

Map of flooding risks in the Zambezi river basin


A millet that grows on dew; sorghum that can survive on very little water. These are not genetically modified organisms (GMOs) but traditional crops used by farmers in Medak (Andra Pradesh). For many women these crops, which they have been growing on their small farms for centuries, have been the difference between starvation and survival. Over the last six years, poor women of lower castes have expanded their seedbanks of local crop varieties and now supply seeds to others in their villages. Many of these traditional crops are rare as they have been replaced by higher yielding varieties and irrigated sugarcane. During periods of severe drought, however, these crop varieties carry a much greater risk. Maintaining crop-biodiversity for local small-scale farmers is an important strategy for drought relief that targets the most vulnerable.16

Protecting catchment ecosystems and restoring those that are degraded can maintain or bring back their functions and benefits to people. Protecting upper-catchment forests can reduce local flood peaks. Restoring floodplain wetlands along rivers can allow flood waters to be stored. While they can reduce the impacts of climate change, these measures also provide additional benefits to local communities. Clean water, fish, timber and non-timber forest products are often essential for the livelihoods of the poorest and most vulnerable. Maintaining and restoring natural and semi-natural ecosystems can thus provide multiple benefits by alleviating poverty and reducing vulnerability to increased climate variability and climate change.15

To maintain and restore forests, rivers, lakes and wetlands, sufficient water needs to be allocated to these ecosystems. The needs of these ecosystems should therefore be integrated into the wider water management strategy. This will require a balancing of these water demands with other uses, in particular agricultural use. Where waters are already over-allocated, serious pressures will arise about how the re-allocation of water can be achieved.

Examples of actions:

I. Policy and planning:

II. Capacity building and awareness:

III. Measures and direct interventions:

Strategic Priority 3. Closing the gap between water supply and demand

Water demand now exceeds or threatens to outstrip sustainable levels of supply. Conventional strategies to further increase water supply can no longer meet growing future needs, and are unable to cope with the uncertainty arising from increased climate variability and climate change. Sustained efforts are needed to reduce water demand and mobilise non-conventional water sources through appropriate policies, laws, incentives and technical measures.


The need for water is growing around the world. The most common strategy to meet this increasing demand is to further develop water supplies. Building dams to increase water storage capacity, constructing new channels to augment water transport capacity and installing more pumps that produce water from deeper layers of the earth are the frequently-selected responses. In many areas, however, the limits for the sustainable development of water supplies for human use have been reached or are about to be reached. With the over-allocation of water resources, the ability of the water system to buffer extreme events and shocks, in particular droughts, has been seriously compromised. People and businesses depending on these water systems are now vulnerable to even limited climatic variability and change.

As increasing the conventional water supply is no longer feasible, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on reducing water demand. Water allocations need to be made to higher-value uses based on a greater flexibility to allocate between competing demands. The adjustment of policies and operational guidance will be critical to achieve this. Additional incentives such as tax breaks for drip irrigation or blocked water tariffs can assist in reducing demand. A wide range of technical measures and know-how are now available to reduce water demand from households, industry and agriculture.

Non-conventional water supplies also need to be mobilised to reduce the gap between demand and supply. The re-use of return flows and the use of wastewater can replace the conventional water supply for irrigation. In coastal areas, desalination of water can provide an important source of non-conventional fresh water supply. Increasingly, techniques and know-how are available to tap non-conventional water supply sources in a sustainable manner.


Drought stress often forces water managers to seek creative solutions for immediate water shortages. One of these solutions was the establishment of the Drought Emergency Water Bank in California in 1991. At the height of a six-year drought, more water was offered by water rights owners than buyers were willing to purchase, even though prices were reasonable at approximately US$1 per cubic metre (note: the typical range of US municipal water supply is $ 0.1 – 1.4 m-3).17


The climate in the Netherlands is expected to become warmer and wetter during this century. Peak flows in water systems are expected to increase by 10–30% resulting in more frequent flooding. Model simulations were carried out to analyse measures to attenuate peak flows. Increasing the areas of open water, raising flow resistance and restricting water flow through small-scale infrastructure such as gates and culverts was modelled to have a variable effect in attenuating peak flows. Even if applied to only 50% of the command areas, gates and culverts would be able to reduce peak flows by 7 – 19%. The exercise indicated that measures need to be adjusted to the type of command area and that a combination of various small-scale interventions could be effective in offsetting the impacts of climate change and increased climate variability at a local level.18

Examples of actions:

I. Policy and planning:

II. Capacity building and awareness:

III. Measures and direct interventions:

3.4 Adaptation to climate change as an opportunity

Many deficiencies in the current management of water resources need to be addressed. This does not mean that the concern about climate change can be delayed or put off. On the contrary, climate change should serve to reinforce calls for improved water management. The systemic approach needed to address climate change has many similarities with the approach needed to resolve current water resource problems. In this light, adaptation to climate change can be seen as an opportunity that gives the rationale for change in the water sector added impetus.

In the first place, climate change can reinforce the ongoing reform in the water sector. With increasing demands and risks, traditional sectoral solutions can no longer provide all the water benefits societies demand. Adapting to climate change adds a new global dimension to the need for improved water management. As climate change is a globally pervasive issue in which all people and countries are involved, a sense of a wider responsibility is growing. Climate change can bring a global solidarity to water management. This could help to promote innovative solutions that offer more than those that have traditionally been applied.


A second dimension is the factoring of climate change into water management. Finding ways to deal with greater uncertainty in water management can act as a catalyst for innovation. New technical and social approaches will need to be developed and tested that will require a shift away from simple demand-and-control approaches. These new approaches will help improve adaptive capacities, maintain and strengthen social capital, develop social learning and support conflict management processes.


Between the 1920s and 1980s, the boundaries of winter wheat production shifted northwards to a location about 3.5 C cooler and 15% dryer than its original area in the US Mid West. At the same time the southern boundary areas have experienced a 2C warming. These US farmers maintained and increased production by diversifying the wheat varieties use. In addition, better use of fertilizers, nitrogen and improved water management led to increased productivity. Other farmers in the southeastern US developed and maintained animal feed stores to keep their operations diversified to minimize loss from rainfall variability. In addition they diversified cropping to reduce weather-related production risk, for example in Illinois, where farmers cultivate maize, oat and clover rather than just maize alone. They also used technical measures to manipulate the timing of cropping or supplemental irrigation in arid and semi-arid regions. Adapting production to other climatic conditions is thus possible, in particular when using a variety of approaches and techniques.19,20

Sandbags along river dike in Senegal river delta, Mauritania

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