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What does resilience mean for urban water services?

Åse Johannessen, Stockholm Environment Institute; Division of Risk Management and Societal Safety, Centre for Risk Assessment and Management (LUCRAM) Lund University, Sweden
Christine Wamsler, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS), Sweden


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Disasters and climate change impacts, as well as increased water demand, pose serious risks to the provision of sustainable urban water services, e.g., drinking water, sanitation, and safe drainage, especially in cities. These challenges call for a transition toward improved water management, including considerations of “resilience.” However, because the resilience concept has multidisciplinary origins it is open to multiple interpretations, which poses a challenge to understanding and operationalizing the concept. We explore how resilience thinking can be translated into urban water practice to develop the conceptual understanding of transitions toward sustainability. The study is based on a literature review, interviews with water experts, as well as four case studies in South Africa, India, Sweden, and the Philippines. We identify seven key principles or attributes of urban water resilience and the related transition process. We find that resilience building needs to discern between and manage three levels (i.e., socioeconomic, external hazard considerations, and larger social-ecological systems) to be sustainable. In addition, we find that human agency is a strong driver of transition processes, with a certain level of risk awareness and risk perception providing one threshold and a certain capacity for action to implement measures and reorganize in response to risks being another. The difficulty of achieving “knowledge to action” derives from the multiple challenges of crossing these two types of identified thresholds. To address long-term trends or stressors, we find an important role for social learning to ensure that the carrying capacity of urban water services is not exceeded or unwanted consequences are created (e.g., long-term trends like salinization and water depletion). We conclude that the resilience term and related concepts add value to understanding and addressing the dynamic dimension of urban water transitions if the key principles identified in this study are considered.

Key words

climate change adaptation; disaster risk reduction; resilience; sustainable cities; urban transition; urban water; water and sanitation

Copyright © 2017 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087