Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on Dec 23, 2020
The pandemic — while not caused by climate change — is a wonderful and horrible example of a radical non-stationary occurrence.
How to prepare for unpredictable climate events to ensure water sustainability This article is part of the series — Post-Pandemic Development Priorities.

About 10 years ago, I was in the Koshi river basin in eastern Nepal. With some colleagues, we drove far up a narrow valley to look at regional climate impacts. The white mountains stood sternly nearby, seemingly just behind the forests and villages of the lower slopes.

Soon, we saw a dry riverbed, caked chalky and white. We drove on another few kilometers before we heard a loud grain mill. Soon, we came to a low hydropower dam, quite new. The dam operator was using power from the dam to operate the mill, while at least four kilometers of dead river lay downstream. The operator told us the dam had never operated at capacity, despite the efforts of international engineers and their assessment of the river’s flows over recent decades. The monsoon and snowmelt were changing in rapid, profound ways, and the dam had been designed for a climate that no longer existed. Kathmandu’s 18 hours of load shedding that dry season was another sign of the climate trap Nepal found itself in, even with modern design and investments. What happened?

A few nights ago, I was on a panel speaking at a science conference, with an audience mostly made up of young environmental scientists from North America and Europe. A few minutes before I spoke, one of the most famous climate scientists in the US — Katharine Hayhoe — addressed the audience. “Climate change is a civilisation level threat,” she said flatly. I smiled grimly, knowing I had an ally on the panel.

Climate change is a spirit mocking stationarity.

She was not talking about floods, droughts, or tropical cyclones. She was talking about such a deep assumption in how we manage our societies, natural resources, and our economies that very few of us are even aware that we make this assumption. She was talking about non-stationarity.

Stationarity” is a concept borrowed from statistics. A non-technical definition of the term is that the past is a poor predictor of the future. Globally, all of us for centuries, probably millennia, have assumed that the past can guide us safely in how we prepare for the future. The best engineers and economists in the world assume stationarity. Farmers, builders, and foresters assume stationarity. Most of us in our daily lives too assume that tomorrow will not be that different than today. Climate change is a spirit mocking stationarity.

Climate shifts in monsoon patterns, cyclone intensity, and drought frequency are no longer easy to predict. The Danish city of Copenhagen had an intense rain event that caused several billion euros in damage in a matter of minutes. And then had another intense rain event about as bad a few years later. The valley where I live on the Pacific Coast of North America is not supposed to have forest fires, but a freak shift in the jet stream over the ocean last September created a flash drought, and within hours we had intense fires and fierce winds channeled through wooded canyons, with millions of people under evacuation orders and thousands of people huddled in evacuation centres during the pandemic to escape the choking smoke-thickened atmosphere.

Australia faced even more intense fires just a year ago — fires so intense they sterilised the soil, re-engineering whole ecosystems in a matter of hours. These events could be predicted, but they could not be predicted on the basis of what has happened in the past. They were non-stationary events. Indeed, the pandemic itself — while not caused by climate change — is at once a wonderful and horrible example of a radical non-stationary occurrence.

What also binds these events is that they reflect climate impacts on the water cycle — from Indian Ocean evaporation and Himalayan snows, to the June monsoon and September cyclones. One French climate modeler told me, “We will never have good precipitation projections in climate models.” These are the models we use in our planning and design and analyses. Indeed, confidence in knowing what happens with the water cycle is at the heart of how we as humans organise ourselves.

What happens when stationarity is violated? When sustainability is no longer sustainable?

India is now, perhaps, the most aggressive country in the world racing to meet the SDGs for clean water supply and sanitation needs (WASH), and the nation is proudly investing in new urban and rural facilities that have little or no climate risk analysis despite these investments likely lasting decades, even centuries in some cases. Water is also critical to transport, communications, energy, cities, and agriculture. Water is embedded in all of these systems, from data centres to fuel production to irrigation. Water stationarity is the weak point in all of these systems.

From the perspective of economists, engineers, and many decision makers, stationarity looks like how we optimise our decisions. We assume that we can find a “balance point” or “nexus” for supply and demand — an angel dancing on the tip of a needle and never falling off. Fixed, rigid, and inflexible targets can lead to hard falls (or punctured feet). Efficiency, particularly for water, is often at the heart of how we make these optimised decisions. Strangely, we call these balance points “sustainable.”

What happens when stationarity is violated? When sustainability is no longer sustainable? What happens if we are not angels on a needle but Lewis Carrol’s Red Queen, running faster and faster to stay in the same place until we fall exhausted?

The epic energy blackout in India of 2012 was influenced in part by elevated water needs in a drought (for irrigation, drinking water) with reduced water availability (for energy production and transmission). Systems for health, education, and communications collapsed in turn. The electrical system was not designed for non-stationary stressors. Indeed, the ancient Harappan civilisation along the Indus is believed to have collapsed from similar climate-induced strains some 4,000 years ago, perhaps the first major climate change collapse in human history.

Fortunately, non-stationary patterns have practical solutions. We can plan, develop, and manage our systems in a robust way for the climate-water impacts we can clearly see coming (more floods and droughts, sea-level rise, higher air temperatures) as well plan for flexibility for the uncertainties we cannot see with certainty, thereby, avoiding the climate traps that come from fixed, rigid, “sustainable” targets. Robustness and flexibility are at the heart of water resilience. These new approaches also look at the intersections — synergies and gaps — between diverse natural and human systems.

Robustness and flexibility are at the heart of water resilience.

For the past decade, a new generation of tools and methodologies have emerged that focus on water uncertainty and, in effect, water resilience. The World Bank; Deltares; experts from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; the US Army Corps of Engineers; the Dutch Rijkswaterstaat; UNESCO; and AGWA (my organisation) are some of groups that have come together to create — together and apart — these new approaches. Groups such as the Asian and Inter-American Development Banks and Germany’s GIZ are embracing these techniques, not to mention the Global Commission on Adaptation and Sri Lanka’s IWMI. We are also now seeing these methods extend out into the private sector. Most importantly, these methods are reaching middle and lower income countries, where the needs for critical and basic services are only increasing in the face of rapid development, demographic change, and ongoing climate impacts.

And the pandemic? COVID-19 has made all of us intensively aware of the systems we are embedded in. The chains of resilience stressed by the coronavirus have helped us see systems and connections we have not visualised before. Some of us are even beginning to align these threats — gathering drivers and threats into more interlocking, overlapping, and more enduringly resilient solutions. We’ve been calling this alignment between the pandemic and climate change “deep resilience.”

Over the past decade, we’ve learned that the language of climate change is truly the language of water, while the language of adaptation is water resilience. I hope you will join us in creating this new language together.

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John H. Matthews

John H. Matthews

John H. Matthews is the Executive Director and co-founder of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation ( AGWA). Since 2003 he has integrated technical ...

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