By Julia Day

Despite being organised to within an inch of its life here at the Stockholmsmassan conference centre, World Water Week’s morning sessions are already running behind. Has there ever been a conference that runs on time? Answers on a postcard, please. Anyway, I am sitting in on a session entitled ‘From Theory to Reality: Sustainable Water Management in an uncertain Climate’. (Photo: Duncan Pollard / Julia Day).

First up, Duncan Pollard of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), who says we need to treat water management as a journey which embraces uncertainty as he outlines some of the organisation’s work on freshwater adaptation.

“Uncertainty is no excuse for inaction – we need to start now and act fast. There needs to be a willingness in terms of managing in terms of uncertainty and need to develop water management institutions and processes that operate with uncertainty,” said Mr Pollard.

Francesca Bernardini, UNECE, believes that transboundary cooperation in adaptation reduces uncertainty and costs.

But few countries have developed strategies on water and adaptation to climate change. There are no strategies at transboundary levels, she said, despite the Convention of the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes.

She outlines some key recommendations – flexible legal agreements, entrusting joint institutions with adaptation and the development of information exchange using the same models to allow comparison. There should be vulnerability assessment for the whole basin while measures should be agreed on common no/low regret actions and goals.

“Although this seems like common sense, this is not happening,” said Ms Bernardini. “So we need partners,” she concludes and invites the audience to join forces for pilto projects in transboundary basins and to share knowledge and experience.

The World Bank’s Dr Rafik Hirji runs through some of the Bank’s facts and figures and states the party line: “Climate change must not come at the cost of development” – essentially, addressing both issues together. For water and climate change there is a two-pronged attack of adaptation and mitigation designed to support Bank operations and client countries in making water investment decisions.

And he outlines the Bank’s dilemma: “Essentially we know much less than we should but must make investment and financing decisions nonetheless…we cannot wait for the science,” said Dr Hirji. “Uncertainties are a given and we just have to deal with it.”

He adds: “Managing risk and uncertainty is not new in the water sector – there is just more now. The past record cannot be used for future designs.” There is that word again – uncertainty. It could well be word of the day.

Dr Hirji said the Bank has both top-down and bottom-up strategies that work in tandem across its 212 projects – sprinkling the words ‘no regrets’, ‘good practice’ and ‘sustainable’ around while talking about these projects.

The Bank has formulated a seven point decision framework to make decisions on water and climate change adaptation investments and is just starting to test this framework in its project cycle. This framework is intended to support the identification, preparation and implementation of operations, he added.

The STEPS Centre’s pathways approach focuses on working with uncertainty in a highly complex world of dynamic social, technological and ecological processes where conflicting priorities exist amongst different people.

Conventional analysis and policy approaches are well-attuned to handling risk, but are inadequate where these other kinds of incertitude prevail.

But dynamic systems and contexts involve various forms of incertitude, whether it be risk (where probabilities amongst possible outcomes are known), uncertainty (where probabilities cannot be assigned), ambiguity (where there are different, incommensurable views of outcomes) or ignorance (where we don’t know what we don’t know). We need options that are flexible and adaptable enough to work in this changing environment.

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