Enhancing resilience in urban water systems

Osaka’s network of drinking water and sewage treatment plants
Osaka’s network of drinking water and sewage treatment plants

Resilience thinking looks for ways to enhance the ability of systems to succeed in a volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous world. It is the potential to optimise performance under both foreseen and unforeseen changes, disturbances and opportunities. It invites us to move beyond a ‘predict and withstand’ model, to one based on adaptation and reconfiguration, whilst retaining systems’ fundamental performance characteristics.

The ultimate aspiration is to safeguard what matters, minimise harm to individuals, organisations and wider society, and to enhance organisational and societal wellbeing.

This is an aspiration that brings with it many questions and tensions. Which interests should be prioritised, and when? Over what timescale? How can we resolve these conflicts to minimise harm? For whom? What demands will these new approaches place on the people in the system?

From a water services perspective, cities are a key optic because they are especially densely populated and are dependent on a largely unseen utilities infrastructure that cannot be changed quickly.

In port cities these pressures are compounded by their location at the bottoms of river catchments implying potentially acute supply pressures (quantitative and qualitative), and also because they draw water services from estuarine and marine environments. Their ‘hydrosocial cycles’ are therefore quite complex.

This research is developing a methodological framework for characterising these flows of water services through a selection of cities in the four regions represented in the IWSN consortium plus Asia. These ‘water city’ studies will be developed into full ‘urban water balance’ assessments.

Water city case studies already published or underway include:

  • Bristol, UK (link here for a short 2014 output)
  • Durban, South Africa
  • Beijing, China
  • Kampala, Uganda
  • Vancouver, Canada
  • Santiago, Chile
  • Osaka, Japan

We are also working with other stakeholders locally, including Bristol Water and Wessex Water, Bristol City Council and The Schumacher Institute to create a ‘Living Laboratory’ for thinking, and developing, new ideas about water-related urban resilience.

The first fruit of this collaboration was the International Perspectives on Water Resilience mini-conference and workshop that brought together key stakeholders for the first of what should be many events, as we collectively work towards mainstreaming the resilience agenda.