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OOSKAnews Voices: Decisions in the Dark: Finding the Context for Climate

FORT COLLINS, CO, United States

OOSKAnews Voices is a new series of guest “opinion columns” on water, written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. The columns provide a global platform for organizations and individuals to promulgate their views and messages.

In this piece, John H. Matthews, co-founder and secretariat coordinator for the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA), which is chaired by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and the World Bank, discusses the difficulty in bridging the gap between scientific knowledge and practical decision-making when it comes to climate change and water resource management.


Matthews’ work integrates technical and policy knowledge for climate adaptation for practical implementation. He has worked globally on these issues since 2007 and has authored many publications on adaptive management for water infrastructure and ecosystems. He has a PhD in ecology from the University of Texas and is based in the United States.

The opinions expressed in this article represent the views of John Matthews, and are not endorsed by OOSKAnews Inc.

As a young science post-doc working for a big NGO on climate change adaptation and water management, I had an intense early conversation with a water manager about eight years ago in a dimly lit London pub. He looked at me sternly after a long monologue, saying, “OK, John, I accept your argument: climate will impact water management. But my questions to you are (a) how important is climate relative to other issues, and (b) what should I do differently tomorrow when I get back to the office?”

He was quite senior in a private utility and more experienced and pragmatic than me. I had the humility to remain silent and just savor a good pint in the darkness -- I didn’t really have a good answer.

The transition from the “knowing” of science to knowing how specific people and institutions actually made decisions about particular places was humbling and sometimes brutal for me personally. My experience, however, was also emblematic of the challenges in bridging gaps between climate change and water communities, as well as the divides between self-described “knowledge producers” and “decision makers.” For water, climate change is especially important since the rate of change is both fast and uncertain, while so many parts of water management that we care about -- infrastructure, ecosystems, management agreements -- last over climate-relevant timescales.

The past year, however, has seen some dramatic shifts in how I might answer that water manager -- a transition to far more satisfying answers. Back then, water managers had essentially two choices for addressing climate change: assume that either the recent past or climate models could predict future patterns safely. Neither approach is satisfying, especially for quantitative water management; the recent past can mask important trends and novel patterns in precipitation, water quality, seasonality, and other variables, while climate models show little consistency (and generate little confidence) in their projections. They are at best weak tools for imprecise, uncertain application.

Within the past few months, the World Bank has introduced a new approach to evaluate climate risks for their investments. Confronting climate uncertainty in water resources planning and project design: The decision tree framework, authored by Patrick Ray and Casey Brown from the University of Massachusetts, guides project managers in the World Bank through a stepwise, contextual, decision-centric process to evaluate if climate change is important to the project.

If climate impacts are likely to be significant, then these impacts are evaluated relative to other issues such as demographic change through a framework called “decision scaling.” Analytically, decision scaling reduces many of the uncertainties associated with climate model data and emphasizes stakeholder-driven parameters for evaluating success and failure. Finally, if necessary, the project’s parameters (design, operating conditions, and so on) are adjusted to ensure robustness.

The publication embeds each step within the World Bank’s existing decision making process, normalizing the process of climate adaptation within the institution, its staff and the client countries.

In effect, the World Bank has made a decade’s worth of interesting technical and scientific analysis (not to mention handwringing by investors and practitioners) quite “boring” even as Confronting Climate Uncertainty produces a systematic, repeatable, and consistent methodology that can be applied by people who are not necessarily paid to care about climate change. The significance of the shift in climate adaptation is enormous, particularly since the World Bank’s investments are centered on the developing world. I hope the result is that emerging economies can benefit from our errors and missteps in relying too heavily on climate model-centric approaches.

The World Bank's overall approach does not strike me as unique, even if it is at the leading edge of this trend. I have seen complementary approaches developing with many organizations -- the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Rijkswaterstaat and Deltares in the Netherlands, among many others. The hallmarks of this new era address my British colleague’s questions: how important is climate change relative to other factors? How should my institution move from a boutique, one-off approach to a sound and mainstreamed decision-making process?

I have lost track of my British utility colleague -- I haven’t seen him since the pub. He struck me then as a person who was struggling with the right issues, with an earnest desire to do right by his customers and company. A little time, humility, and reflection have shown progress. I think he and I should share another pint.