Human dimensions of urban water resilience: Perspectives from Cape Town, Kingston upon Hull, Mexico City and Miami



Published: April 2020

This content was originally published on The Resilience Shift website. The Resilience Shift, a 5-year programme supported by Lloyd’s Register Foundation and hosted by Arup, transitioned at the end of 2021 to become Resilience Rising. You can read more about The Resilience Shift’s journey and the transition to Resilience Rising here.

Water resources management is of ever increasing importance due to changes brought about by climate change. The problems are espeically acute in cities. Recent water crises in Cape Town, Sao Paulo underline how the problem is already affecting global cities, and as urban populations continue to grow, other cities will soon be facing similar issues. Water managers in charge of city water supplies have a complex task to plan for the future with unpredictable socioeconomic and climatic changes to factor-in. Despite an increasing amount of information, guidance and efforts towards the development of adaptation plans, progress is still slow to tackle these challenges.

There is growing acknowledgement that the lack of progress towards climate mitigation targets and the irreversible legacy of past greenhouse gas emissions necessitate an acceleration of adaptation efforts globally. Water resources management is at the heart of this challenge, with many of the implications of climate change likely to be experienced through impacts on the hydrologic cycle [9]. As the world’s urban population continues to boom, cities will feel the impact of such crises most acutely. Many recent and high-profile examples from Cape Town, California and Sao Paulo highlight the significant economic, societal and environmental consequences of a lack of preparedness [1], [44], [47], [50]. Urban water managers, as the stewards of this fundamental resource – face the complex task of planning for the future under a confluence of highly uncertain socioeconomic and climatic conditions. Despite an increasing abundance of information, guidance and efforts towards the development of adaptation plans, implementation of adaptation actions remains elusive [49].

Under the rational choice model, water resource managers can be assumed to make decisions that optimise performance based on a search for information and selection of the best alternative [65]. Despite the prominence of the rational choice model [61], strides in the psychology and behavioural economics literature over recent decades show the important role that heuristic rules [28], defined as an ‘intuitive, rapid, and automatic system’ of judgement [67], play in human behaviour. These heuristics, or rules of thumb, show how prejudice, personal experience and knowledge, and the way information is presented, all have a profound effect on how we perceive risk and make decisions [72], [73]. We know that people show a reluctance to move from the status quo and adopt innovations, even in the face of overwhelming evidence [39], [64], [61], [62]. Thus, motivating behaviour that leads to resilience actions requires a better understanding of the perspectives of those taking action.

Over the past 10 years, growing appreciation of the diversity and scale of urban hazards, the complexity of cities, and the uncertainty associated with climate change, globalisation and urbanisation has emphasised the importance of moving beyond risk management to building resilience [8]. We define resilience here as the ability of the system to persist, adapt and transform (PAT) when conditions require [14], [25]. The concept of urban water resilience relates to building these characteristics – persistence, adaptability and transformability – in order to manage water related chronic stresses or sudden shocks that threaten widespread disruption or the collapse of physical or social systems [6].

Human systems, at all scales, are characterized by a dynamic interplay between social, ecological and technological factors [11], [46]. A large part of society’s ability to manage for resilience lies in the capital stock derived from its actors, social networks and institutions, and the interactions that occur between them [42], [70]. As such, assessing and enhancing the adaptive capacity of such actors, social networks and institutions is critical to building resilience. Resilience scholars frequently promote adaptive governance as a strategy to enhance the adaptability, and flexibility of socio-ecological systems [2], [3], [11], [21], [26], [58]. At its essence, adaptive governance expands upon resource management to include social components as central to the adaptive management of complex systems [5], [18], [21], [26]. Commonly cited attributes of adaptive governance include participation, collaboration, polycentric and multi-layered decision making, accountability and transparency, deliberative and nested [4], [22], [24], [26], [27], [30], [42], [52], [54], [55], [57], [60], [70], [71]. Despite considerable recognition of adaptive governance as strategy to mitigate against the deep uncertainty presented by climate change, water managers, urban policy makers and practitioners often face the central challenge of translating the concept of adaptive governance and resilience into tangible and practical implementation. Jimenez et al. [35] argue that one must focus on embedding key attributes of adaptive governance such as those cited above in the delivery of core functions of water governance for resilience – planning and preparedness, policy and strategy, disaster response and recovery measures, coordination, capacity development, financing, regulations, and monitoring & evaluation. In addition, the values of stakeholders taking part in governance processes, the capacity of those stakeholders and institutions, and the amount of available resources influences how successful one will be in operationalising the priniciples of adaptive governance.

Many studies have sought to characterise human, social and organisational resilience through qualitative empirical research [12], [15], [19], [45], [48], [63], [66]. Few studies extend this approach to consider human, social and governance dimensions of resilience conjunctively. The City Resilience Index Arup [7] provides the closest example to the present work. In this case, data from 91 interviews and 38 focus group discussions across six cities – Concepción, Cali, Cape Town, New Orleans, Semarang and Surat – was used to articulate a definition of urban resilience and indicators and metrics that allow one to measure the resilience of any city [8]. Key themes of resilience that were identified and relevant to this study include; equity and inclusiveness, consultative planning, appropriate land use and zoning, comprehensive city monitoring and data management, effective coordination with other government bodies and proactive multi-stakeholder collaboration. Although there are some areas of overlap with this work – the research focus in the case of the City Resilience Index was on urban resilience broadly and as such many of the themes identified were not directly relevant nor specific enough to the question of urban water resilience. Furthermore, analysis was limited to the administrative boundary of the city whereas the work presented here considers the city within its hydrological context. To our knowledge the present study is the only case of qualitative empirical research focussed on urban water resilience.

Through this work, we seek to begin bridging the gap between theory and practice through empirical investigation of stakeholder perspectives. We interviewed people in four cities (Greater Miami and the Beaches, Mexico City, Cape Town and Kingston upon Hull) for their perspectives on what enables them to effectively deal with water related shocks and stresses in ordinary and extraordinary conditions. Based on analysis of interview responses and focus group discussions, we propose key characteristics of human, societal and governance capacity necessary for urban water resilience. We discuss findings in the context of evidence gathered in the field and prevalent work in current water resilience discourse. It is our hope that this work may provide insights into the critically important human dimensions necessary for a shift towards resilience as a prevailing paradigm for urban water management.


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