Chapter 4 Beyond Pipes, Pumps, and Ponds

4.1 Developing the Capacity to Change

Pumping more water, restoring wetlands and building dams and dikes could be viable measures to adjust water management to changing conditions. However, adapting water management to climate change and increased variability is unlikely to be solved simply by a technical “quick fix” that transfers traditional approaches from one place to the next. Those methods that are applied successfully in one country could well fail to generate similar results under other socio-political and physical conditions. Adaptation will thus need to go well beyond technology transfers and become a broad societal process in each country and sector.

The wide involvement of stakeholders will be critical as risks and uncertainties induced by climate change can no longer be handled by experts alone. Water professionals' knowledge and expertise will need to be complemented with the views, opinions and knowledge of stakeholders. Without their political support for adaptation efforts, political and business leaders will prioritise other needs and refrain from taking decisions that help societies in general and the water sector in particular to adapt to climate change.

When considering the adaptive capacity at a national level one needs to distinguish between general and specific adaptive capacity. The former refers to societal characteristics that permit a response to new threats or challenges of almost any kind. The richer a society and the more wealth available, the greater the general capacity to change and adapt. The same is true for the level of skilled human resources, the effectiveness of organizations and institutions, and the prevailing levels of education and health, as well as for the presence and quality of infrastructure and the degree of equity and social cohesion in a society.21


Specific adaptive capacity adds to this the dimensions arising from the specific skills, knowledge and systems available in different sectors. In relation to water management it means, for instance, the funds available for investment in water resources management, the effectiveness of companies and relevant agencies of government, and the availability of the required skilled personnel, such as water managers, hydrologists, engineers and economists.

Water managers often possess the experience and capacity to adapt to changing conditions. Droughts, floods, increasing water demands and changing water quality are just some of the aspects they have to deal with regularly. However, current institutional and technical capacities may preclude the type of adaptive strategies and measures needed to deal with climate change, particularly with increased variability and its associated risks and uncertainty. Strict sectoral planning, for instance, is still a widespread phenomenon despite a decade or more of working towards more integrated approaches. It often inhibits a more holistic approach towards water management required to deal with the increasing pressures from increasing demands and uncertainty.

In developing adaptive capacities it is important to overcome the great inequities that exist amongst and within societies, and to recognise that adaptive capacity is very unequally distributed both globally and within countries. Countries with limited financial and human resources, poor infrastructure, unstable and weak institutions and inequitable access to resources are likely to have little capacity to adapt.1 Countries and communities that find themselves in this situation will be vulnerable to climate change, just as they are to other stresses. Adaptive capacities are generally considered to be high in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and North America. In much of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Small Island States these capacities are considered to be low.1

Large differences in adaptive capacity may also exist within countries. In many instances individuals, families, communities, and local governments lack the capacity to engage fully in adapting to new threats such as climate change. Adapting water management to climate change will thus require building the capacities of both institutions and people. In many countries they lack awareness, information, knowledge, know-how and a network that can support them in incorporating climate change in their decision-making and water management. It is for this reason that the building of adaptive capacity is a priority for many countries in preparing to respond to climate change.1

Hazard mitigation counseling at a disaster relief center, USA


The vulnerability of communities to hazards is a product of their limited access to economic, environmental, social, political and personal assets. Opportunities for coping are influenced by livelihood, community structure, social groups, household structure, age, ethnicity, history and health. Those most vulnerable to floods rely primarily on individual mitigation strategies or adaptation during flood events. When dealing with flood mitigation and adaptation, an opportunity to build social capital can easily be lost if a top-down approach to community targeting is used. Failing to promote social capital will simply confirm and strengthen existing linkages of dependency and control, and will not reduce vulnerability. Securing participation of the most vulnerable sectors of the population will require strengthened political institutions and a commitment to participatory approaches23

4.2 Pumping Alone: the Role of Social Capital in Adaptation

Social capital plays a highly significant role in organising and changing societies. Social capital is generally considered to consist of the combination of trust, norms and networks that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit. In relation to flood hazard and vulnerability, social capital will, for instance, reflect the amount of co-operation amongst people and the quality of this cooperation23 Networked people assisting flood victims by pumping dry their basement, providing them with temporary shelter or giving them seeds for a new crop are a clear expression of social capital. People often do not recognise and respect social capital as a resource until the moment they realize they have very little of it...the moment they are pumping alone.

Social capital is widely varied among societies and changes over time. Some consider that social capital is rapidly declining in the developed world. The declining level participation in civil society groups and volunteer associations in the U.S. can be regarded as an indicator of this phenomenon24 Changes in agricultural cooperatives in Europe could also be considered indicative of such a decline. With a higher emphasis on market orientation, efficiency and competitive strength, farmer cooperatives are losing some of their ability to sustain a sense of solidarity and reciprocity25


A decline in social capital can have serious consequences for the capacity of a society to adapt to climate-induced change and related shocks. For instance, when a Vietnamese community's social coherence is reduced and people are no longer willing to volunteer their time for necessary dike repair works, local authorities will need to hire paid labour to do the job. In northern Vietnam this has resulted in an increase in household taxation to cover the cost, while a decline in social coherence related to disaster preparedness has also developed.2


"Vietnam is currently undergoing rapid economic and political transition. Changes in the socio-political situation have significant implications for adaptations and coping strategies. Private property rights in coastal areas and the river delta at Xuan Thuy are changing perceptions about climate-related extreme events. “The 1986 storm seemed worse as it was our own property that was being lost. I was much more worried when the property was my own as I had to look after it myself”, said a householder in Giao Hai. With privatisation, private credit can play an increasing role, as can the local community “Street Associations”. Previously, both were abolished or co-opted as Communist Party affiliated organizations. Since 1992, however, community leaders have no longer allocated the traditional large work brigades to coastal and river defence. Instead, taxes are now raised to hire workers to carry out minimal maintenance and focus mainly on works to counter coastal land salinisation and maintain the country's shrimp ponds. Adaptation under these conditions implies adapting not only to a changed natural environment, but possibly more important still, of adapting to a changed socio-political and institutional setting.22

However, there are also many examples of how civil society has been able to organise itself effectively to deal with change. Cooperatives, associations, clubs, community-based groups, and traditional forms of organization have significant potential to contribute to adapting to increased climate variability and climate change.

Children carrying water in South Africa

The strengthening of social capital can be achieved through various methods. Improving health-care, schools, or communal water supplies will provide essential services and can be a meeting point for joint action. The establishment of production, manufacturing and trading cooperatives can also contribute to social capital by creating solidarity among stakeholders and enabling collaborative action in communities that may have little experience with such approaches. Community-managed village banks are another mechanism to strengthen social capital; they have proven to be very effective in providing people with access to credit and in building a sense of solidarity. So far, social capital has remained an aspect of adaptation that has received very little attention. However, maintaining and strengthening such capital is essential if adaptation is to succeed

4.3 An Adaptive Management Style and Social Learning

The adaptation process will need to be driven by a genuine willingness to change and innovate, particularly in terms of priority setting and decision making. It is likely that it will only develop in a significant way if changes are viewed not as a threat that paralyses, but as a stimulus for innovation. As such it is more likely to be an iterative process than a series of simple choices about technical interventions.

An adaptive style of management will need to be taken up by water users and managers if water management is to adapt to climate change. Adaptive management can be defined as a systematic process for continually improving management policies and practices by learning from the outcome of operational programmes.26 When applied to water resources, adaptive management can build on the acknowledgement that water resources and benefits that accrue from them are derived from complex natural (or semi-natural) ecosystems. As ecosystems are complex systems, their functioning and role in providing water resources is partly unknown. Dealing with such uncertainty therefore needs to be incorporated into management.


Innovation rarely works with “blueprint projects”. In the 1990s, the World Bank established the Learning and Innovation Loan (LIL). These loans are a cost-effective instrument for testing and piloting innovative development ideas. With loans of up to US$5 million, the World Bank gives special emphasis to small, risky and/or time-sensitive projects. LIL focuses on experimentation, learning and piloting to identify possible development solutions, prior to potential large-scale operations. The loans also focus on promoting ownership and broad political commitment among stakeholders. The loan programme enables the World Bank to work in partnership with donors and NGOs in a more flexible manner. To qualify for the loans, project proposals need to clearly state a testable hypothesis and incorporate intensive monitoring and evaluation. They must also include indications of how the project results will aid the borrower in making decisions about replicating and scaling-up the project. More flexible financing will be essential to stimulate innovation for dealing with climate variability and change and reducing vulnerability.33

An adaptive management style to water resources applies a systems approach. It builds on trial and error, and establishes feedback loops to learn from experiences and adjust water management to fit people's and ecosystem's needs. It should be an inclusive style that builds new bridges between stakeholders and engages them actively in decision making.27


Being one of many styles that can be applied in managing water resources, adaptive management is relevant where change is driven by high impact human activity, especially when such activity causes resource scarcity and threatens to undermine ecological functions and capacities. Adaptive management challenges water managers who base activities on a standardized set of rules and procedures. Under an adaptive management style, rules are updated on a regular basis to fit new natural, social, economic, political and institutional realities and projections.

An adaptive management style can be extremely costly and time consuming. Often the outcomes remain incomplete, as management is likely to require an ongoing series of further experiments. This open-endedness has the danger of seldom presenting conclusively cut-and-dried answers that politicians and decision makers can use as a basis for policy formulation.28 To overcome these challenges, those using an adaptive water management style will need to define and achieve time- and space-bound results that are also affordable.

Monitoring and evaluation of activities, outputs and outcomes is at the core of adaptive management. Without being fully aware of the progress made, it will be very difficult to learn from current successes and failures and adapt to changing conditions. A range of techniques are now widely available for monitoring and evaluation, and are increasingly known and used by managers of water resources projects and programmes. Regular measurements of indicators, including river discharge, rainfall and lake water levels, are at the heart of any monitoring programme. With the decline of meteo-hydrological networks, however, accurate information on even the most basic indicators is generally becoming more and more scarce, especially in many developing countries. If this trend continues it will contribute to a further reduction in some countries' capacity to implement an adaptive management style.

Social learning is a critical aspect of an adaptive management style. As a form of ongoing dialogue among all stakeholders to explore problems and propose innovative solutions, social learning helps achieve a shared understanding of the situation.29 Where conventional learning focuses on individuals acquiring knowledge and skills, social learning ensures that stakeholders' collective efforts are at the heart of the learning process.27,30,31,32

When applied to climate change adaptation, social learning fosters a strong interaction between scientists, water managers and other social actors to find innovative solutions. Today's management of water resources involves a broad range of interdependent actors with different perspectives and interests that can often conflict. In this context, adaptation cannot be confined to the application of a single, unvarying recipe but will need to be a process of incremental and experimental steps. To be able to adapt, all actors, including scientists and water managers, will have to recognise that they have much to learn and that they should remain open and responsive to change.

Adapting to climate change will require strengthening people's ability to learn together. This will involve training and may often require the use of new tools. For instance, to inform a multi-stakeholder process on water management options, different scenarios can be presented using a decision support system. Given the uncertainty of future climates in specific basins, actors will want to use a range of scenarios to test the sensitivity and vulnerabilities of specific sectors or of the entire system. This will enable stakeholders to go through a process of “self-discovery”. Experiences across cultures have shown that using new tools is often the only way for people to change their basic attitudes.Using innovative and appropriate tools will be essential to have people step out of their current mindset and behaviour patterns and begin engaging in adaptation to climate change.

4.4 Managing Conflicts Over Uncertain and Troubled Waters

Water resource disputes occur throughout the world. In the future, increased climate variability and change are likely to lead to an augmentation in the occurrence, intensity, public profile and complexity of such disputes. Public and private water policies and planning have, however, paid relatively little attention to the management of water conflicts, even though the existence of conflicting claims over water resources and related land resources is a clear obstacle to sustainable water management. Further increases in water demand and threats derived from climate variability and change will make it increasingly important to find new mechanisms and institutions and develop the required skills to manage conflicts over water resources.


Policies and measures related to climate change, including those dealing with adaptation, can themselves lead to increased conflict. Defining and demarcating high flood-risk zones along rivers can, for example, lead to tensions between administrators and land and property owners. Likewise, the allocation of water to maintain downstream river areas and wetlands can generate tensions among water users. In over-allocated river basin systems in particular, the conflicts arising from new policies and plans to adapt to climate change might give rise to new tensions or intensify existing conflicts. In such circumstances, the adaptation process can even bring conflicts out into the open that have been hidden for decades if not centuries.

Special attention needs to be given to managing both existing and emerging water conflicts. Natural resources conflict management, including water and land dispute management, is a process rather than a specific package of standard procedures and solutions. In all cases it has to deal with resource scarcity and the contested allocation of resources. In some settings, resources are used by people in ways that are defined symbolically.35 Waterways and fish are not simply resources people compete over; they are part of a particular way of life. These symbols and identities are highly significant in an ideological, historic, social, economic and political sense. Managing conflicts over water and land requires acknowledging and building on this reality to find solutions acceptable to all stakeholders.


Government-installed water districts (barangays) in the Ifugao catchment of the Philippines followed arbitrary administrative boundaries that did not match the natural boundaries of watersheds and traditional divisions of barangays. In 1999, local communities and government used a geographic information system (GIS) to carry out an assessment of the Ifugao catchment to restore terraces to combat soil erosion and land degradation. The GIS system helped to bring together the experience of a range of farmers and to generate new knowledge about the watershed. It inspired new ideas and solutions and facilitated the re-establishment of the traditional barangays' boundaries as official boundaries.In combination with the use of traditional institutions and the accompanying rituals, songs and chants helped to institutionalise the results of the joint learning exercise.34

An important element of this is the need to build the capacity of stakeholders to constructively engage in dispute management. Public agency staff, private sector operators, landowners, farmers, and tourism operators, for instance, could all benefit from training at the start of a dispute management process 34,36,37 Such training could be focused on creating skills in conflict mapping, priority setting, defining stakeholder needs, anxieties, and underlying motivations, and developing a provisional conflict-management plan. Dialogue in this sense is not simply a series of talking shops, but rather a well-designed and facilitated process of collective learning.

Sales of goods as local strategy to reduce vulnerability in Cameroon

Managing water and land conflicts, including those related to climate change, is thus not just a matter of providing technical keys to unlock the right decision or allow consensus to be reached. It is rather a way to facilitate and coordinate a shared and managed decision-making process. In many instances it will require the acceptance of certain levels of decentralised decision-making and pluralism; the recognition of a range of views and knowledge about the resource base and its management. Thus, rather than trying to reach some “ultimate consensus”, it respects the skills and limitations of each party and creates opportunities for step-by-step progress towards reconciliation and long-term engagement in joint action.

< previous section  < index >  next section >