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Urban water Americas

Alan Shapiro: Redefining 'resilience' in the new normal

Alan Shapiro
Wednesday, 17 June 2020

A much needed global insurance policy

Resilience has moved from a tangible concept to political buzzword. With future shocks expected in a post-Covid-19 world, now is the time for it to be redefined, says Alan Shapiro.

It’s hard to look far this year without seeing the word ‘resilience’.

From personal resilience in the face of a pandemic to global resilience to climate change, we've collectively decided to double down on resilience as an insurance policy.

Particularly around climate and related water issues, the past decade has seen a surge in organizations, initiatives, and resources devoted to advancing resilience.

These include the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities network and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, as well as countless others.

In my home country of Canada, more than 2,000 companies have endorsed a Resilient Recovery vision for the national economy following COVID-19.

“Resilience is the insurance policy that we’ve collectively decided to double down on.”

Tracing the roots of resilience

Resilience is a powerful concept when grappling with complex systems, such as the shocks posed to water infrastructure by extreme weather events.

Over the past few years, it has become less a tangible concept and more a social and political buzzword. And while most of us would agree that resilience is a quality worth cultivating, we might be hard-pressed to define what it means in practice.

Simply put, resilience is the ability of a system to withstand changing conditions. Applied to infrastructure and engineered systems as operated by water utilities, resilience refers to the capacity of a system to provide reliable services and cope with disruptions.

In environmental circles, the concept traces its roots to a paper published by Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling in 1973. And current hype aside, resilience offers value as a framework for informing the design and management of complex systems.

Defining the context

So how do we put resilience into practice?

We start by treating it as an adjective. Resilient communities. Resilient infrastructure. Resilient ecosystems. 'Resilience' is excellent in theory, but 'resilient' is much more powerful in practice.

“Resilience is excellent in theory, but resilient is much more powerful in practice."

Next, we define the specific context. Resilience from what? Resilience for whom? For many water utilities, climate and disaster shocks pose the highest risks, and vulnerable communities disproportionately felt these risks.

A city, for example, could explore which climate threats - flooding, drought, extreme weather - pose the highest risk to its drinking water supply, assess which neighbourhoods are most vulnerable, and target its resilience planning accordingly.

Six principles for building resilience

A 2019 report by the World Bank outlines six principles for building resilience in water systems. These include:

  1. Knowing the system through network analysis and criticality assessment

  2. Improving maintenance to reduce vulnerability

  3. Involving users for active demand management

  4. Working with nature to manage and respond to risks

  5. Developing and improving contingency management

  6. Applying innovation where appropriate.

These principles and their accompanying toolkits offer an opportunity to translate resilience from a buzzword into a tangible framework for decision-making.

Cape Town’s experience with Day Zero in 2018 highlights the danger of relying heavily on a single water source, particularly one vulnerable to drought, without mechanisms in place to manage consumer demand.

This is where resilience thinking is urgently needed. As Covid-19 is currently reminding us, shocks will come, whether anticipated or unexpected.

And resilience, from our health care systems to our food supplies to our social support networks, is critical to weathering them when they do.

Alan Shapiro

Alan Shapiro

Alan Shapiro Consulting & British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT)

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