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Working With Water: Identifying Risk, Enhancing Resilience

By Kimberly Grubert, Project Consultant, WSP

Published 04-04-22

Submitted by WSP

river shoreline within mountains
Photo courtesy of Reuters Events

Originally published by Reuters Events

Resilience is a journey, not a destination. As the climate has changed, so have the approaches needed to understand and proactively address associated risks and opportunities. In a changing climate, utilities, governments and corporations across all sectors are realizing that looking to the past is no longer sufficient to plan for the future.

Water and climate change go hand in hand. Since life depends on water, projected changes in precipitation patterns due to climate change are an increasing global concern. Groundwater – one important measure of such change – is getting much needed attention through this year’s World Water Day theme. Effectively managing groundwater requires organizations to evaluate the changing climate’s potential impacts on local systems, adapt decision-making processes, and mainstream climate adaptations into water supply planning.

Resilience strategies for groundwater, or any water system, should be robust, flexible, and able to respond to a wide range of futures. Many water utilities are sensitive to the urgent need to prepare for and work to prevent the worst climate scenarios. Since water utilities exist to ensure reliable, equitable access to water, many are already weaving climate change considerations into their integrated resource planning, supply chain sourcing, and capital planning decisions. They also are changing the way plans are crafted – taking more holistic, transparent, and inclusive approaches.

Yet, water issues impact not just utilities, but every organization in some way. To truly create a more resilient future, climate change considerations must be mainstreamed into organizational decision-making, and quickly.

water station
The Business Function Mapping Framework can help utilities explore how climate change may impact water treatment and distribution. (Credit dmitrimaruta) Photo courtesy of Reuters Events

As the world’s largest environmental services firm, WSP has been helping clients locate, develop and manage groundwater supplies since 1944. Increasingly, we’re called on to help organizations around the globe become “future ready” by addressing full lifecycle water challenges, from water scarcity to flood management.

We often use two iterative approaches to help organizations prepare for a future that will look and feel radically different from the world we live in today. First, we identify an organization’s climate-related risks and opportunities, and then we help assess its resilience to those potential challenges.

It's no longer enough to create a long-term water management plan that sits on a shelf. Organizations need more adaptive frameworks and processes to make effective water management decisions in a rapidly changing climate. The most successful also realize that climate resilience work now requires constant monitoring, evaluation, and continued action. Even the frameworks we use need to evolve to meet unprecedented demands.

Recently, we collaborated with several water utilities to test and pilot a framework – the Business Function Mapping Framework (BFMF). The BFMF, developed between 2018–2020, provides steps for companies to understand, assess, and address climate-related risks and opportunities associated with their critical business functions. Then, in 2021, several other leading water organizations developed the Water Resilience Assessment Framework (WRAF). The WRAF was designed for a wide variety of stakeholders, including utilities, corporations, and watershed managers to facilitate a shared understanding of water system resilience and allow practitioners to develop common measurable goals and outcomes for stakeholder and resilience planning.

Hetch Hetchy reservoir
Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which delivers water 167 miles (269 km) west to San Francisco and its client municipalities in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Photo courtesy of Reuters Events

These two frameworks can help leaders develop an adaptive resilience strategy and inform more consistent decisionmaking across all parts of an organization and its supply chain. They can also help effectively engage and align goals among stakeholders.

The frameworks can be used independently to inform decisions in a changing climate, though they may be even more powerful when used in tandem. The BFMF helps leaders explore climate-related risks and opportunities relevant to their organizational functions, whereas the WRAF encourages organizations to take a broader view – and start moving from reducing climate-related risks to developing a resilience strategy through a systems approach that considers climate shocks, stresses, and change.

While both frameworks were designed with and for water utilities, the approaches are applicable to any organization that wishes to enable inclusive collaboration and improve its understanding of what the future might hold, and how to prepare for whatever it might bring.

These frameworks are unique for two reasons:

  1. Traditional organizational decision-making tends to focus on the short-term, but climate change decision-making demands planning for both the short- and long-term. These frameworks help organizations imagine future climate scenarios and tackle decisions under uncertainty.

  2. These frameworks provide a flexible and realistic approach to planning. Traditional decision-making around potential future impacts requires access to robust data and information, such as climate models, scenarios, and meteorological data. This can be costly, time-consuming and lead to greater uncertainty if data are unavailable or models are inconclusive, contradictory, or overly complex. Yet, leaders who delay decision-making hoping for perfectly predictive models may suffer the consequences of inaction.

For example, a utility may hesitate to plan for a water use increase in the future because there is still uncertainty about how future climate conditions may change the intensity, frequency or timing of climate- or weather-related hazards. However, postponing action could make the organization, its customers, and the surrounding community more vulnerable to the dangers of protracted warmer, dryer conditions.

The BFMF and WRAF models address that challenge by supporting flexible decision-making processes with mechanisms to enable reaction and response in the face of uncertainty. After all, when it comes to climate and water, resilience is a journey, not just a destination.

For more information about the two frameworks, download Water in a Changing Planet: Reducing risks, leveraging opportunities, and enhancing resilience from WSP.

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WSP is among the world's largest environmental, engineering, advisory and sustainability consulting firms, with more than 55,000 professionals worldwide. We design lasting solutions in the buildings, transportation, energy, water and environment markets, and develop equitable, ESG-centered strategies that help organizations and communities adapt to changing conditions and become more resilient. Reckon with the past. Innovate for the future. Learn more at wsp.com.

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