The Policy & Practice of Climate Change & Water

Guest Blog | Standardizing Uncertainty: Systematic Approaches to Climate Resilience for Water Security

This guest blog was written by Ana Maria Quintero, Policy Associate for The Nature Conservancy’s External Affairs and Freshwater Team. Ms. Quintero recently led a session at the IAIA17 conference that was co-chaired by AGWA and TNC.


During the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) 2017 Annual Conference in Montreal, a group of water experts presented together on the challenges that our freshwater systems face when improper planning occurs and then explained the methodologies that exist to address water in an uncertain climate. Michael Edelstein, an environmental psychologist from Ramapo College, opened the session with a devastating example of the exponential decline of the Aral Sea. It is known as one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters, leaving the people of the region of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan without a fishing industry while facing unemployment and economic hardship.

This case study example flowed perfectly into the rest of the presentations given by Guillermo Mendoza from the Army Corps of Engineers, John Matthews from AGWA, and Ad Jeuken from Deltares. These presentations highlighted the importance of managing climate risks from an early stage and integrating climate risk assessments during the planning, design, and operation phases of infrastructure development, particularly for hydropower. The Business as Usual approach for planning is normally a top-down forecast driven approach, where not all water resources studies consider the potential impacts of climate change. But with a bottom-up approach such as the Decision Tree Framework used by the World Bank, as Mendoza explained, there is a methodology to assess how uncertainties can impact a project, program, or activity output. A bottom-up approach is a process that is driven by assessing the vulnerability of performances to various uncertainties. In the example given from Nepal, it was shown early on that climate was not a dominant source of risk but other uncertainties such as market prices of energy had higher impact on outcome (Net Economic Benefits). The approach does not just assess trends on climate, although it can be a factor. It is more about analyzing vulnerabilities with respect to uncertainties and strategically finding robust solutions.

Another problem that arises in hydropower project planning is that of the environmental impact assessments. These studies tend to come at later stages once of the project has already been approved or during construction without having thought of the cumulative impacts on ecosystem services from the beginning. One of the key messages from John Matthews’ presentation was how ecologists and engineers can properly work together in synchronicity to deliver sustainable yet effective hydropower projects. Engineers and ecologists have different lines of site and thinking, but can we renegotiate these relationships in light of climate change? Thus, ecological performance indicators can merge into engineering models, creating a happy medium for not just the engineers and the ecologist, but for the hydropower project as well as the environment. However, it is not so simple. Scientists and decision makers often clash or have difficulty communicating with one another.

The facts and science are presented, but often decision-makers have a trouble understanding the assessments or have different interests in mind. Nevertheless, it is critical to value the importance of information and assessments, but not just for the interest of the climate or the environment, but for the future of a project. Ad Jeuken stressed the importance of considering the life time of infrastructure projects, not only the IRR of a project. The CRIDA Tool is a way to make more robust decision through climate modeling by further interpreting the stress levels, providing additional planning guidance through adaptation pathways (a new method developed by Deltares in the Netherlands) and presenting flexible strategies to the decision maker.

We can help decision makers avoid environmental disasters such as the Aral Sea if they can consider the importance of early planning and using the available models and tools that are designed to aid in making proper and accurate decisions for infrastructure development. We can also help meet energy demand for communities around the world without compromising the integral systems of rivers and their ecosystem services.
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