Water is fundamental to virtually every aspect of our lives. It nourishes our bodies, grows our food, powers our industry, facilitates transportation, absorbs and conveys our waste, and is at the heart of many of the cultural monuments and recreational amenities that we cherish. Because it is so fundamental, water is all too often a source of conflict. 

From India’s Northern Plains to the American Southwest, growing cities and farmers with historical water rights battle over dwindling aquifers and drought-prone rivers. From the Brazilian Amazon to Canada’s James Bay, indigenous groups, environmentalists, and power producers argue over whether hydroelectric dams should be built. From Africa’s Nile to Asia’s Mekong, downstream and upstream nations argue over allocation and water quality issues. From the Arctic to the South Pacific, nations compete over dwindling fish stocks. Unfortunately, climate change is exacerbating these challenges and necessitating contentious conversations at all scales around matters like renegotiating water rights as supplies decrease, and protecting built and natural environments as oceans rise. 

None of these issues are easily resolved. They involve stakeholders with important interests and strong opinions. The water breakout session at the CBI 20th Anniversary Symposium focused on the most significant challenges and opportunities for collaboration to improve water governance, and how collaborative mechanisms might be structured; how climate change is altering the conversation and what might be done about it; and the role of technology in all of this, including how it can be effectively managed to maximize benefits and minimize the costs. The panelists and other attendees had a wide-ranging discussion that highlighted various ‘game changers’ that could address the challenges and put multi-stakeholder partnerships to work. 

Panelist Steve Lee, Senior Policy Advisor to the Mayor of Seattle cited the Upper Hudson Water Forum in New York State as an example of an initiative that is building capacity through partnerships. Lisa Van Atta, Assistant Regional Administrator for Protected Resources of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted that the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act enshrines collaboration into regulation; stakeholders must be brought together to seek consensus on possible management plans.

Collaborative planning and resource management works best when: groups have clear goals and objectives, and concrete decision points they are working towards, rather than simply engaging in dialogue; stakeholders have incentives to be at the table; there are means for incorporating local and indigenous knowledge, not just technical information; and there is clear leadership that is invested in making it work. Processes are often most effective when there is skilled professional facilitation. 

Climate change is particularly vexing because of its dynamic and uncertain nature. It is difficult to make water management decisions today that will still be optimal as conditions change and our knowledge increases. Panel moderator Prof. Lawrence Susskind noted that collaborative adaptive management allows stakeholders to make the best possible decisions today, and then continuously revisit and revise their practice as new information emerges. Peter Rogers, the Gordon McKay Research Professor of Environmental Engineering at Harvard University, noted that this is not easily done. Both established governmental institutions and physical infrastructure are typically rigid and resistant to change. Rules and regulations are designed to be clear and enforceable, which helps to avoid ambiguities but also makes management efforts less flexible. Infrastructure is typically built to last for decades. It is hard to shift the paradigm towards more flexible systems. 

In order for adaptive management to work, concerted efforts must be made to alter the institutional environment. Stakeholders must buy into the notion of ongoing learning, and embrace ongoing change in both physical and policy design. Policy tools like tradable water rights can help to establish concrete objectives while allowing for more flexibility in how stakeholders respond. 

Technology does not offer a panacea, but can help to mitigate water scarcity and quality issues, potentially reducing conflicts. Panelist Leon Awerbuch, President of Leading Edge Technology, asserted that desalinization is rapidly evolving and already economically viable in many cases. However, the environmental impacts and disparities in access are serious concerns. Basic water efficiency measures can generate substantial savings, but actors will only adopt if they are incentivized to do so. Status quo fixed water rights and subsidized energy for pumping actually discourage efficiency. Water users are often resistant to change, but may buy in when win-win solutions are found, and as they see increasing water scarcity and quality issues as a threat to their long-term livelihoods. 

Vision and leadership were identified as potential game changers, particularly at the local level. Lee noted that, while higher levels of government are often more reactive and decision-making more formal, local leaders can affect change by supporting innovative projects that alter the conversation. For example, designing streetscapes to absorb water using low impact development techniques can change residents’ relationships with water while recharging aquifers and reducing stormwater flood risks. 

The question in a world with increasing water-related challenges is not if more collaborative approaches to government are necessary, but rather how best to go about it. There is much still to be learned, but new models, like collaborative adaptive management, suggest that there are options. We are honing our practice around how to structure processes that produce fair, efficient and wise decisions for water management and use, recognizing that problems are rarely purely technical or political, but typically at the nexus of the two.