OOSKAnews Voices: The Long View On Long-Term Climate Impacts: Building Cathedrals Of Resilience

CORVALLIS, United States

OOSKAnews Voices is a series of guest “opinion columns” written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. In this article, 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, observes that cities are the landscapes where most climate adaptation decisions are being negotiated and contested...and that most of those decisions are about water.

Matthews’ work integrates technical and policy knowledge for climate adaptation for practical implementation. John 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.

If national policies are the battleground for greenhouse gases, I would argue that cities are the landscape where most of the climate adaptation decisions are being negotiated and contested. Most of those decisions, of course, are about water.

Last week I landed in Mexico City — known regionally at CDMX (Cuidad de Mexico), which must be in a competition with Cape Town to be the poster child for water scarcity and ongoing system-level crises and “droughts”. I temporize on the term drought, since water scarcity is often a mixture of insufficient supplies, perverse consumption incentives, and (in many places) long-term declines in the amount of water available as a result of climate trends.

CDMX’s twenty-plus million people live densely concentrated in a closed basin that until the 1700s or so was an already old city scattered upon, across, and around a large lake. That surface water is gone, and the city is now dry — dry and crowded, pulling water from below at rates that trigger rapid subsidence as well as sucking water from other basins, north and south. Still, it is not enough; delivery is uneven while the city and state continue to grow and demand increases. In the center of CDMX is the Zocalo, the main plaza, dominated by the city’s looming Baroque cathedral, an old and massive structure sinking at an even faster rate than many other parts of the city.

I was sitting near CDMX in Cuernavaca, in an international seminar on water resilience led by the Mexican Institute for Water Technology (IMTA). After I gave a talk on trends in urban resilience globally, an engineer came up to me and said, “We have a hard time saying ‘resilience’ in Spanish. It’s a new word here. Resilienciais too hard of a word for us to pronounce.” I cringed a little at the irony of his statement. But in truth, Spanish-speakers have borrowed the word from English, and though I’ve worked on climate adaptation and resilience issues for 15 years, I don’t really know what resilience means either. Most of us in English mean “recovering from an impact” like a rubber band. But that’s not quite right when you’ve been shifting into entirely new conditions — from city to megacity, from lake to desert, from agriculture to postindustrial. How do we evolve with integrity and not simply try to go back to where we were before?

Mexico City is now trying to change its narrative from accelerating disaster to resiliencia — or a reasonable adjustment of the term. Listening to many speakers, on and off the stage, talk about fears and hopes across Mexico and in Mexico City in particular reminded me of CDMX’s cathedral and its Gothic predecessors in Western Europe.

The first of those structures was begun in France a millennium ago. I’ve read that the amount of stone used for all of Europe’s cathedrals was roughly equivalent in mass to the Great Pyramid in Giza. On average, these enormous, revolutionary buildings took over 200 years to build. But some took much longer - eight centuries in at least several cases. Particularly for those initiated between 1000 and 1300 AD, a cathedral represented a logistical, planning, and design challenge that had never been encountered before in Western Europe. Generations of workers, master builders, and managers — guilds, bishops, abbots — labored with faith but were unlikely to ever see the end of construction in their lifetime. Gaps in funding, capacity, war, famine, momentum, and political will could result in delays of seasons, decades, even centuries.Collapses from bad designs, revolutions, and earthquakes occurred. The great Gothic cathedrals look stately, elegant, and pure today. But they were messy affairs, achieving perfection and persistence through adaptive management, patience, and clear vision.

Listening to speakers, I wondered if CDMX is effectively building a new cathedral — this one to water and climate change. Two cooperating initiatives have begun to align a diverse set of actors within and outside of Mexico. One, led by Mexico City’s resilience program, was named one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, assembling regional community, business, and government leaders to develop a shared vision of resilience of the larger regional urban landscape, connected through the theme of freshwater. Coordinated by Arup, The Resilience Shift, and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, the City Water Resilience Framework has been supporting CDMX and seven other cities globally to see how water can be turned from a systemic risk to a systemic solution for resilience in the term’s richest formulation, connecting sectors, infrastructure, and institutions to ensure that regional decision makers know how to see and reduce water-related risks. A parallel team, by SIWI (Swedish International Water Institute), is working to develop an adaptive governance approach to resilience.

A second and complementary effort is being coordinated by the World Bank and the Hydrosystems Research Group. The World Bank has put together a coalition of some 40 stakeholders relevant to water decision making across the broader Valley of Mexico to identify resilience indicators that can enable to the region to persist, adapt, and ultimately transform and thrive under shifting hydrological, economic, and social conditions. They do not wish to return to 1990 (much less 1500) but to articulate a new image of the urban landscape, across many cities. These efforts are then integrated into long-term planning at national, state, and urban levels. Ultimately, the World Bank hopes to transform positive stakeholder visions of resilience into a regional investment plan.

None of these efforts are quick fixes or simple solutions, but progress is steady and positive. We see the first generation of the master builders — preparing a broad region from the deep foundations to the stately towers. A rose widow or soaring vaults may not be visible for generations, but lasting change can occur through no other mechanism.

In August, I was lucky enough to visit the aristocratic chambers of Lloyd’s of London to hear and interview representatives from many cities: Amman, Miami, Hull, and Cape Town, among others. CDMX was there too, in good standing, one of many new cathedrals of resilience reaching upwards.