Adaptive planning: a tool for times of uncertainty

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As ‘deep uncertainty’ becomes the norm for long-term water planning, the adaptive planning that is needed requires new perspectives rather than just technology. Here, The Source shares practitioner insights from a recent IWA online panel discussion.

For professionals involved in long-term planning of water services infrastructure and lifecycle asset management, dealing with uncertainty is nothing new. However, it’s clear that traditional methods are unable to deliver the type of flexible plans that a new unpredictable world demands.

As was explored in a recent IWA online panel on ‘Adaptive Water Policy For Resilience’, large-scale and long-term interventions must be planned in the context of an increasingly unpredictable and severe climate, and plans could easily be disrupted by innovations in both the water and energy sectors, or even derailed by financial crises. Even the governance of water is evolving, with the drive to multi-sector water planning and formerly independent utilities forging tighter integrations. Through all this, plans will be under increased scrutiny as a result of societal expectations around environmental quality and the human right to water and sanitation for all.

Water professionals realise there is a need to adapt to meet these challenges. There is a need for policies that anticipate, rather than react to, change, and infrastructure that is designed to adapt, and perhaps be repurposed in the long term, as conditions change. With this in mind, Adaptive Planning and Adaption Pathways are among the tools being developed to respond to a more dynamic future.

Defunct water policy

Observing existing water policies and management methods that create unexpected or negative outcomes reveals how adaptive planning differs from traditional planning. As the US struggles to manage the increasing aridification of the Colorado river basin, Felicia Marcus, founding member of the Water Policy Group in the USA, drew attention in the discussion to the water rights system there as “a clear example of an old system that is not equipped to deal with current issues”.

Marcus also notes that “climate change is forcing us to deal with rapid sequence flood/drought events, sometimes in the same place and sometimes almost at the same time. The existing policy environment is no longer fit for purpose here either. Switching dam operating rules from drought management to immediate flood response, simply doesn’t work”. Adaptive planning means going beyond infrastructure and rethinking management principles.

One of the tenets of adaptive planning is planning to a tipping point rather than by a calendar. While improved weather forecasting technology makes it easier to manage systems dynamically, adaptive planning advocate Emily Ryan, of TU Delft in the Netherlands, says it’s critical that “tipping points are informed through deep and meaningful stakeholder conversations, agreeing the level of impact that people are willing to bear before changing a policy. The Climate Risk Informed Decision Analysis (CRIDAR) developed by UNESCO and Deltares provides detailed information to guide system stress testing and adaptation planning, and gives a breakdown of the steps that practitioners can take to get valuable stakeholder input”.

Creating resilience through adaptive planning means thinking differently, taking event intensity and other factors into account when designing solutions. Marcus argues that probabilistic metrics, such as the ‘100-year storm’ to design flood management structures, or the ‘1 in 50-year drought’ to design drought supply options and drought triggers, are also problematic, as such metrics become meaningless under extreme and unpredictable climate conditions.

The notion of relying on reservoirs to provide supply and flood management functions is also challenged by adaptive planning, which showcases alternatives such as ‘sponge cities’ to deal with drought. The effectiveness of sponge cities is proven through case studies around the world, particularly in China, where large-scale flooding in Beijing triggered the 2015 Sponge City Initiative, launching 30 ‘model sponge cities’ including Shanghai.

According to Dhesigen Naidoo, of the Water Research Commission in South Africa, “what is needed now are more large projects to rapidly translate case studies into mainstream practice”.

Naidoo also points out: “One of the best indicators of successful climate change adaption policies is the ability to address uncertainty and provide flexibility for communities to respond as events unfold. Water sensitive design (WSD) is an example of optimising successful adaptation.” Advocates promote WSD as a smart way to achieve ‘rapid adaptive ability’, particularly when it engages the water-food-energy nexus and decentralises the governance system.

Social innovation

More innovation is required for the water sector to respond to the new challenges, and innovation is often framed as new technology. However, Naidoo argues that it is “very hard to see what the real technological and scientific barriers are for transformative change”. The biggest remaining challenges are to do with replacing operating procedures, rethinking how water planning should be done, and accepting that adaptive solutions involve risk.

According to Naidoo: “Rather than an engineering solution, adaptive planning is a social project. Social innovation, in terms of water governance, politics, policy and overcoming cultural barriers, is 80% of the challenge”. Overcoming the fear of reduced certainty is a major cultural issue. The water sector is notoriously risk averse, with good reason, given the potential implications. Marcus reminds us that, “where policy makers and implementers are at risk of being blamed for a ‘failure’, even if the event is well outside of normal planning timeframes, that creates real challenges”.

Apra Boyle-Gotla, an engineer from Watercare Services, New Zealand, adds that the often transactional relationship between water practitioners and government policymakers can create barriers to adaptive planning. “There are policies and regulations in place that exist for a reason, and that must be followed,” she says. “This can stifle innovation. The transactional relationship must evolve into collaborative dialogue where practitioners are enabled to work with policymakers to modernise problematic policies.”

“Social innovation, in terms of water governance, politics, policy and overcoming cultural barriers, is 80% of the challenge”

According to Boyle-Gotla, one way to incentivise policy change is to “communicate where policies are counter-effective or having perverse outcomes. It requires a lot of transparency about water asset and resource challenges, and therefore a lot of trust. This tends not to happen readily, often through fear of backlash, and this needs to change”.

There are signs that things are changing, and Boyle-Gotla points to ‘The Dynamic Adaptive Policy Pathways’ research project emerging from the policy space in New Zealand, which shows strong indications of a shared desire to be adaptive. It offers tools that transcend the disciplines and hierarchies of asset management, policy, engineering, and so on. She enthuses that “by using Adaptive Planning to provide a selection of options, rather than a single fixed option, it enables flexible optioneering. WS(u)D – Water Sensitive (urban) Design –  solutions enable flexibility, in contrast to hard engineering that is carbon intensive and no longer guaranteed to respond as required”. Referring to direct experience, she says: “As an engineer, when you do classical optioneering through an adaptive lens, that’s really powerful.”


Adaptive Planning methods are easily incorporated by engineers and other water professionals who have developed a systems-thinking approach to solving complex problems. Felicia Marcus notes that, “as water professionals become more comfortable with intersectionality, it becomes easier to identify opportunities to integrate across different disciplines to fix things”. Based on experience in California, she states: “It is easier to talk about adaptively managing through change across a table at local scales. This is an opportunity that shouldn’t be lost. At larger scales, more outside power players get involved in determining plans, and it becomes harder to engage younger stakeholders, communities of colour, indigenous communities, etc., as well as maintaining key facets of equality and fairness.”

Marcus advises policymakers at national or state level to create space for effective and powerful decision-making and action at local levels. The Californian state “constructed a framework to shift responsibility to the local level, realising that there is no single way to manage demand or to achieve multiple benefits from managed aquifer recharge. Local players were simply instructed to do ‘something that meets this marker’ by specified timelines, otherwise the state would step in and take over. The result was a flurry of activity with local people discussing how they were going to trade water among themselves and recharge their basin, coming up with plans to repurpose farming land to create a groundwater recharge zone and wetlands, compensating farmers”.

Water professionals in Australia have been on the receiving end of drastic climate events in recent years, with many younger professionals considering ‘deep uncertainty’ to be normal. Boyle-Gotla states that adaptive planning “creates opportunities to resolve inter-generational equity by better balancing the risk of locking in over-investment with avoiding the risk of under-investment and burdening future generations with just-in-time solutions”.

According to advocates of adaptive planning, the most important but hardest part is the change in mindset that is required. Adaptation is less about new technological solutions, than shifts in beliefs, values, roles, relationships, and approaches to work in the water sector.

But as Boyle-Gotla notes, adaptive planning will increase future decision makers’ abilities to pivot as necessary, rather than simply being “custodians of arcane infrastructure”. •

More information

Given future needs, a new IWA Community of Practice on Adaptive Water Policy & Governance intends to launch a series of work to improve understanding of adaptive planning concepts and processes and to provide better tools to help policy makers and water practitioners.

Also, watch the online panel Adaptive Water Policy For Resilience at: