Under pressure: building resilience into water systems

Lousie Medland Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

With global water resources increasingly stretched, how do we ensure that building resilience into water systems in not an afterthought? This is the question we put to the audience at the recent Resilient Solutions Symposium hosted by Oxfam and the Oxford University Department for International Development.

We kicked off by hearing from three speakers on the complex environmental challenges and impacts on WASH and water security around the world. Vincent Casey, Senior WASH Manager at WaterAid UK, outlined the challenges of increasing ground water salinity in coastal areas of Bangladesh which are exacerbated by shrimp farming in the region.

Dr Rob Hope, Associate Professor of Geography, Oxford University, spoke about groundwater risk management and how the use of longitudinal and real time data is being used to monitor the seasonal use and financial sustainability of water systems in rural Kenya.

Ken Caplan, Founder and Director of Partnerships in Practice, spoke about how resilience is still a relatively new concept in the WASH sector, which has traditionally used the language of sustainability, and the challenge of ‘short –termism’ when we’re trying to find solutions to unknowns in shifting contexts.

The audience added their thoughts:

  • Local engagement needs to be driven by local investment (avoiding issues of currency exchange).
  • We need to make competing priorities visible so we actually know what they are and can then negotiate a sustainable outcome.
  • Developing a multi-stakeholder governance conversation focusing on adaptability is vital to ensuring all voices count.
  • We need to articulate the long term demand for water in the context of everything else. e.g. if water isn’t the priority, what else is?
  • Better understanding is needed of the political economy of water, the presence of vested interests and points of resistance.
  • We need better data and better use of data to enable us to understand how to work with institutions, pooling, managing and interacting with risk.

The SDGs have been a game changer for the WASH sector with the emphasis on bringing systems that need to be “safely managed” and providing “access for all”.  This requires an understanding of how to make systems, services and people more resilient to all kinds of shocks and disruptions, to then be sustainable for all.

We’re still getting to grips with how to set about achieving universal access and planning for greater increases in migration, population growth and urbanisation. Which is even harder to achieve when one fifth of the world’s population already live in areas of physical scarcity. Definitions of resilience for water focus on the dynamics between people, the system and the environment. Greater partnerships to work on this together within and beyond our sector are all the more important when resources are becoming scarcer.  We haven’t got the answer yet but we’re on the journey.

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Isabelle Kermeen