Journal of Water Resource and Protection, 2013, 5, 1-6 Published Online April 2013 (
Adaptation as a Water Resource Policy Challenge
—Institutions and Science
David Lewis Feldman
Department of Planning, Policy and Design and Political Science, University of California, Irvine, USA
Received February 2, 2013; revised March 6, 2013; accepted March 19, 2013
Copyright © 2013 David Lewis Feldman. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License,
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Adaptation is the pursuit of active, deliberate measures to enhance humankind’s capacity to manage water supply and
attenuate demand in the face of climate uncertainty. This article contends that worsening constraints upon freshwater
due to climate variability demand concerted, imaginative, science-based solutions. These solutions must join creative
management to co-production of climate knowledge. Through a series of case studies, we analyze the need for adapta-
tion approaches to prevail over climate variability, and the role of these factors to facilitate their implementation. We
also examine how translation of climate knowledge is helping spur adaptation at various spatial levels. These experi-
ences point to the challenges in adaptation, and the adversity various regions will be faced if we do not.
Keywords: Adaptation; Climate Change; Translational Science; River Basins; Megacities
1. Introduction
Climate scientists, hydrologists, and others contend that
the continued con centration of carbon d ioxide and me t h a n e
emissions will alter the climate in various ways: global
average temperatures will rise, for example, and dramatic
changes in precipitation could adversely affect the
world’s freshwater supply. Rainfall intensity may in-
crease in some regions and decline in others, while the
seasonal balance between snow and rain might also sh ift,
affecting local economies. Higher temperatures could
increase evaporation and transpiration—the rate at which
plants give up moisture to the atmosphere, while reduced
soil moisture affects farming.
Over longer periods, shifts in vegetation cover over
entire regions—from forest to grassland or grassland to
desert—may occur. Accelerated melting of polar and
glacial ice, another probable result of climate change,
would lead to greater sea-level rise and salt-water intru-
sion into coastal estuaries, affecting fisheries and threat-
ening urba n drinking water supplie s [1] .
Many scientists believe these changes are not only
likely scenarios, but that current protracted drought in
some regions, and unprecedented flooding in others, are
harbingers of worse to come. While debate over whether
and to what extent any given climatic event may be
attributable to global climate change is far from settled,
there is growing consensus that the increasing frequency
of water-related extreme climate events is probably the
result of human-induced climate change [2].
Adaptation is the pursuit of measures to enhance our
ability to manage water supply and attenuate demands in
the face of climate uncertainty. It requires imaginative
management as well as good science, and it depends on
the ability to translate kno wledge into language useful to
decision-makers and the public. It also includes activ ities
undertaken for reasons other than climate change (see
Table 1).
We focus on three venues where climate variability
affects water management, and where adaptation is being
pursued: megacities, river basins experiencing drought
and/or flooding, and global venues where these issues are
being discussed, and ways identified, to reduce the im-
pacts of climate change on freshwater through diffusion
of innovation across national boundaries.
2. Venues for Freshwater Adaptation
2.1. Megacities and Water Management
Megacities are urban centers composed of tens-of-
millions of people and are a growing phenomenon in
developing nations where some 80% of the planet’s
urban population resides. Since 1950, the urban populace
of Africa, Asia, and Latin America alone has swelled
five-fold [3]. Large cities generally, and megacities in
opyright © 2013 SciRes. JWARP
Table 1. Some adaptation options for freshwater.
Supply-side Demand-side
Prospecting and extractio n o f groundwater Improvement of water-use efficiency by recycling water
Increasing storage capacity by building reservoirs
and dams Reduction in water dem and for irrigation by chan ging th e cropping calenda r, cr op mix, irrigation
method, and area planted
Desalination of sea water Reduction in wate r demand for irrigation by importing agricultural products, i.e., virtual water
Expansion of rain-water storage Promotion of indi genous practic es for sustainable water use
Removal of invasive no n-native vegetation from
riparian areas Expanded use of water markets to realloc a te w at er to highly valued u se s
Water transfer Expanded use of economic incentives i n c luding meter ing an d pricing to encourage water
From: IPCC fourth assessment report, climate change: working gro up II: impac ts , adaptation and vulnerabil i ty, 2007, Table 3.5.
particular, are often located some distance from the water
sources their swelling populations require [4]. This leads
to an important and in some ways ironic quan dary. Large
cities often divert water from outlying rural areas which,
in turn, produce the food and fiber that directly support
their teeming populations.
In recent years, large cities in developed and develop-
ing countries have instituted measures to secure resilient
water supplies. While partly driven by climate concerns,
the immediate drivers of these adaptation efforts have
been population growth, the need to share supplies with
neighboring communities, and demands to restore threa-
tened habitat. While many examples could be cited, four
large cities—representing an array of baseline climates—
typify some of these drivers: New York, Tokyo, Los
Angeles, and Mexico City.
Since the 1980s, New York—a “wet” city (with an
average of 50” of precipitation per year, half in the form
of snow)—has found that even relative abundance can
become a deficit given population growth and antiquated
infrastructure. Since the late 1970s the city has under-
taken measures to reduce residential water use by 30%,
repair aqueducts from the Catskills and Croton water-
sheds to forestall leaks, and evaluate the possible impacts
of climate change. Working with local universities and
environmental organizations, officials are trying to deter-
mine how sea-level rise and storm surges will affect
water and wastewater infrastructure; how higher tem-
peratures and lower precipitation will impact public
supply and ecosystem health; and, whether capital plan-
ning needs to adapt to these changes can be anticipated
Tokyo is also located in a traditionally wet climate,
receiving some 60 inches of precipitation per year, most
of which falls as rain during mid-summer. After World
War II, rapid in-migration and economic growth dra-
matically increased water demands at the same time
planners decided to pave over small waterways to faci-
litate urban expansion. Increased consumption led to de-
clines in groundwater and land subsidence. Since the
1980s, climate change concerns, including local “heat
island” effects from urbanization leading to additional
energy use, have prompted introduction of large-scale
wastewater reuse, non-potable storm-water harvesting,
groundwater withdrawal restrictions, and aggressive con-
servation [10,11].
By comparison, Los Angeles and Mexico City—
located in dryer climates—face comparable or worse
challenges. Receiving some 15 inches of rain per year,
Los Angeles basin providers have long employed public
education and outreach programs to reduce residential
uses. In 2011, average daily demands remained the same
as in 1980, despite 1.1 millio n more people living in Los
Angeles County. Storm-water capture and wastewater
reuse are among additional alternatives being pursued,
and climate change is now embraced in regional planning
efforts such as those of the Metropolitan Water District
of Southern California—the area’s principal water pro-
vider since the 1930s—and the LA Department of Water
& Power. Among questions for which answers are being
sought are: how will climate change complicate water
rights exchanges with rural areas and affect water rights
acquired from regional agricultural users; and, how
might seismic events disrupt already precarious imported
supplies [12-14]?
Finally, Mexico City, one of world’s largest cities
(>20 million), and recipient of some 28 inches of rainfall
annually, exemplifies the complexities of adaptation in
third world cities. Plans long underway to adapt to
growing water demands are now being adjusted for cli-
mate change. Unsurprisingly, most of these plans hinge
on additional water transfers from outlying regions to
recharge local aquifers and surface reservoirs. Efforts are
also being pursued, however, to reduce residential water
demand, use more reclaimed wastewater for local agri-
culture and non-potable uses, and employ storm-water
capture for groundwater recharge and some community
uses. Given the availability of public investment funds
and low water tariffs charged in Mexico, the likely effec-
tiveness of these measures is subject to considerable
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. JWARP
debate [15-17].
2.2. Adaptive River Basins
Three ambitious if divergent examples of basin-wide
adaptation efforts to manage drought and flooding—
caused by climate variability—are found in Nigeria,
Bangladesh, and Australia.
In 2002, the World Conservation Union and the UK’s
foreign assistance agency partnered with the government
of Nigeria in an effort focused on the Hadejia-Jama’are
basin to build “local water resources management capa-
city” in a region long experiencing the vicissitudes of
alternating floo d and drou ght. A mong the uniqu e featu res
of the Joint Wetlands Livelihood are improving use of
local knowledge; demonstrating pilot-scale, best-ma-
nagement practices to restore the region’s economy and
ecology by showing how to conduct dry-season grazing,
recharge groundwater, and restore waterfowl habitat.
Most innovatively, local level forums comprised of
farmers, women’s groups, and villagers engage in com-
munity-level training, apply local knowledge to water
management, and directly participate in policy making
by role-playing scenarios to manage parts of the water-
shed in ways that maximize equity while protecting
agricultural productivity. Central to these scenarios is a
process of debating and rank ordering measures [18,19].
By contrast, the Bengali Delta of Bangladesh con-
sistently suffers from too much water, with chronic
flooding from cyclones and monsoonal storms a too-
frequent occurrence. While thousands have died from
floods, there is fear that sea level rise caused by melting
glaciers will worsen floods and displace upwards of 15%
of the country’s 160 million. Because the Ganges and
Brahmaputra River deltas constantly shift, securing their
banks and protecting rich farmland is difficult. In the
1990s, a World Bank plan backed by France, Japan, and
the US, proposed some 8000 km of dikes to control these
streams at an estimated cost of $10 billion, together with
sea walls to resist cyclone-induced waves. Local farmers
opposed these plans because their lands would be taken,
while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
criticized them because local soils were too unstable to
support such efforts.
As an alternative, local villagers and farmers, working
with NGOs including UK-based Practical Action and
US-based CARE, advanced local-scale programs to adapt
to flooding, including 2-foot-high concrete plinths topped
with inexpensive jute panel walled homes that are less
likely to be washed away by tropical storms; reintro-
duction of formerly forgotten farming techniques such as
Baira cultivation and floating gardens suited to areas
subject to lengthy inundation, introduction of salt-to-
lerant varieties of rice; and, conversion of some paddies
to shrimp and crab raising. These innovations would not
have been introduced without incorporating the kn owl edg e
of local farmers and villagers [20,21].
Finally, since 1985, Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin
has witnessed a significant set of policy changes follow-
ing negotiation of the Murray-Darling Basin Compact
commission (MDBC). This agreement between New
South Wales, Victoria, S. Australia and the federal gov-
ernment provides an integrated management scheme for
the region which is home to over 40% of the country’s
farms, annually produces $10 billion of crops and live-
stock, and provides water to over 3 million (see Figure
Key to its adaptive-ness are two features: a sustainable
management program that engages local communities in
an interactive, participatory process to evaluate factors
adversely affecting water, monitor ever-changing condi-
tions, and work with community groups to develop long-
term management strategies; and a science-for-policy
translational effort co-sponsored by the MDBC that
monitors long term (e.g., the recent Millennium Drought)
drought, El Nino/La Nina trends, and incorporates
longer-term data into river system and groundwater
models. While its primary goals are reducing high salin-
ity from irrigation, restoring ecological health, and man-
aging long-term drought planning for climate variability
have become central to its role. MDBC coordinates indi-
vidual state initiatives to compensate for climate vari-
ability, diversions, allocate water to ensure adequate
in-stream flow, and employ water markets to sustain en-
vironmental quality [22-24 ].
Conflicts persist in the basin, however: environmen-
talists and farmers continue to debate the amount of wa-
ter needed to restore in -stream health. In November 2012,
for instance, the federal parliament set up a $1.7 billion
fund to purchase water rights from farmers in order to
Figure 1. Schematic of stakeholders’ consultative forum
(from: Chiroma et al.).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. JWARP
maintain adequate flow in those parts of the basin most
ecologically vulnerable [25].
2.3. Global Diffusion
In the past 25 years, international convocations have
sought to address climate-related adaptation problems
facing water management in an attempt to establish
global protective standards and better diffuse adaptation
experiences. Examples of such efforts include UNCED’s
Local Agenda 21 (1991); the UN Millennium Develop-
ment Summit (2000); the World Civil Society Forum
(2002); and the UNEP Foresight Process on Emerging
Environmental issues (2012).
The In ternational Coun cil of Local Environmental Ini-
tiatives (1990), comprised of some 1200 local govern-
ments worldwide was formed in 1990 following the
World Congress of Local Governments, seeks to demon-
strate local strategies that can be disseminated to other
cities and sub-national regions. ICLEI is currently best
known for providing technical consulting, training, and
information services to build capacity, share knowledge,
and support local governments in implementing innova-
tions in energy, water, and biodiversity. It also adroitly
publicizes and awards notable “success stories” in order
to promote emulation by other cities. ICLEI has spon-
sored numerous studies of urban energy use that have
been useful for gauging growth in production and con-
sumption in large cities in highly-developed, as well as
developing countries. Its premise is that locally-designed
initiatives can provide effective, cost-efficient ways to
achieve sustainability [26-28].
ICLEI has also undertaken local and regional climate
change mitigation and prevention initiatives without
waiting for national-level interventions to first occur.
Beginning in the early 1990s, for instance, the UN’s
Conference on Env ironment and Development’ s (UNCED)
Local Agenda 21 Program, as well as Article 10 of the
Rio Declaration on Environment and Development began
to encourage developing countries to restructure their
national development and environmental protection plans
to better embrace local-level decision-making in plan
formulation and implementation.
The primary goal of these activities has been to ensure
that investments made by UN-affiliated organizations
would be vetted through local NGOs and community
groups, as well as by scientific specialists who may not
be adequately represented in national decision-making
forums. The anticipated payoff for these countries (and
for their regions and cities) is heightened capacity to lev-
erage development funds so as to tackle issues of infra-
structure resiliency and resource vulnerability (e.g., sea-
level rise, water supply, renewable energy projects).
A second goal of ICLEI is to place local-level deci-
sion-makers in a better position to leverage national as
well as local resources by demonstrating how they have
benefited from what they have learned through publi-
cizing efforts and depicting successful cases as models
worthy of emulation. This better enables development of
integration skills among organizational participants. In-
tegration skills refer to the ability to bridge different
ways of knowing a single issu e. Since 2009, for instan ce,
ICLEI has heavily invested in a Young Municipal Lead-
ers Initiative which selects some two-dozen junior may-
ors and municipal council officials to participate in a
two-year capacity-building alumnus—teaching program
to ensure continuous knowledge sharing and long-term
engagement in its networking activities.
Other forums where integration-type activities have
occurred include regional integr ated assessment activities
that have been successful in articulating new research
priorities in the US; in regional climate-response plan-
ning activities in the Northeast US specifically engi-
neered and coordinated by ICLEI and its Cities for Cli-
mate Protection (CCP) Campaign; and, in other regional
endeavors in which scientists and policy-makers work
together to manage drought, flooding, and promoting
local practices for managing water resources in a sus-
tainable manner through training, capacity-building, and
sharing innovations on conservation, water-use effi-
ciency, and integrated water management approaches in
over 70 countries [29].
2.4. Co-Production and Translation of Science
Translating climate knowledge to make it useful to lay
audiences is a huge adaptation challenge. There’s a huge
gap in the way scientists talk about climate change and
the way farmers, villagers, urban residents, and other lay
audiences talk about water problems. Translation is an
effort to literally “simplify” science. Efforts taking place
in Brazil and the Nile Basin in Africa show how this may
be done effectively .
Since the 1990s, the northeast Brazilian state of Ceara
has sought to institute legal reforms in response to
drought and competing water claims—and to foster
collaboration between scientists and local farmers. In
coordination with federal agencies, a series of parti-
cipatory management councils have been introduced in
the Lower Jaguaribe-Banabmuiú River basin to negotiate
water allocation agreements among users.
In a departure from traditional top-down decision-
making, técnicos (staff scientists) work with farmers to:
combine local knowledge of drought/flood impacts with
long-term expert weather predictions; and help farmers
and local governments better manage reservoirs, flood,
and drought. Results have thus far yielded a willingness
among farmers to share management of local water
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. JWARP
supplies, while the state water management authority
permits locals to monitor conditions. Local users, for
their part, hold greater trust in state-level information [30,
Since 1998, the 10 countries of Africa’s Nile basin
(Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Eritrea, Ethiopia,
Sudan, Egypt, Uganda, and Congo) have tried to ne-
gotiate an agreement to share the waters of the basin
equitably, acknowledging the needs of fast-growing up-
stream countries while respecting—where possible—the
established rights of Sudan and Eg ypt. The latter—which
have the basin’s largest populations—are reluctant to
relinquish withdrawal rights, while upstream Ethiopia is
committed to harnessing tributaries for hydroelectricity
and water supply without Egypt’s permission, creating
additional friction. While solutions are debated, Lake
Victoria, a major source of the Nile, falls some 2.5
meters every three years due to climate change.
Despite such acrimony, some adaptation is occurring
in sub-basins: including international support for irri-
gation improvements, groundwater management, and
rural electrification projects. Moreover, local communi-
ties, NGOs, scientists and aid organizations are working
together to design solutions, identify funding sources,
and share information [32-34].
3. Conclusions
Prospects for climate change are compelling commu-
nities across the globe to adapt to freshwater shortages
and other alterations. Cities and river basins are actually
well-suited for undertaking adaptation efforts if the
political will can be found to mobilize hard choices.
Adaptation will require: 1) better communication be-
tween scientists and end-users, facilitated by efforts to
formalize dialogue between them (e.g., Brazil, Nigeria);
2) adaptive management—an approach emphasizing social
learning and incremental solutions that are reversible if
they fail (e.g., Bangladesh, Nile Basin, megacities); and,
3) recognition that sounds knowledge and effective
collaboration go together—experts must reach-out to
local water users and embrace cultural, social, and ethical
concerns if the world is to face global climate change’s
impacts on freshwater.
In sum, climate change and extreme variability will
force us to adapt to freshwater shortages, alterations in
distribution. While adaptation requires better communi-
cation between scientists and end-users—thus, reform of
water institutions to facilitate dialogue among them—as
we have seen, impediments to these processes cannot be
underestimated. They include antiquated models of
science-for-policy which predicate that scientists gene-
rate information without consulting users or incorpo-
rating local knowledge.
4. Acknowledgements
D. Feldman thanks the program committee for the ESF
Junior Summit—Water: Unite and Divide—Interdisci-
plinary Approaches for a Sustainable Future for the op-
portunity to present an earlier version of this paper in
Stresa, Italy in August 2012.
[1] Climate Institute, “Water and Climate Change,” 2010.
[2] P. H. Gleick and M. Heberger, “The Coming Mega
Drought,” Scientific American, Vol. 306, No. 1, 2012, pp.
[3] D. Satterthwaite, “Will Most People Live in Cities?”
British Medical Journal, Vol. 321, No. 7269, 2000, pp.
[4] United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “State of
World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Ur-
ban Growth,” United Nations Population Fund, New
York, 2007.
[5] New York City Department of Environmental Protection,
“2010 Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report,” De-
partment of Environmental Protection, Flushing, 2010.
[6] New York City, Department of Environmental Protection,
“Drought Management Plan and Rules,” 1998.
[7] New York State Department of Environmental Conserva-
tion, “New York City Watershed Program,” 2010.
[8] New York State Department of Environmental Conserva-
tion, “Facts about the New York City Watershed,” 2010.
[9] H. Shultz, “Some Facts on the New York City Water and
Sewer Supply System,” Citizens’ Housing and Planning
Council, New York, 2007.
[10] Bureau of Waterworks, Tokyo Metropolitan Government,
“Water Supply in Tokyo,” 2011.
[11] H. Blanco, et al., “The Role of Urban Land in Climate
Change,” Climate Change and Cities: First Assessment
Report of the Urban Climate Change Research Network,
2007, p. 240.
[12] Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, “Manda-
tory Water Conservation—Fact Sheet,” 2009.
[13] Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, “Urban
Water Management Plan,” 2010.
[14] Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, “The Story
of the Los Angeles Aqueduct,” 2010.
[15] T. M. Downs, “Sustainability of Least Cost Policies for
Meeting Mexico City’s Future Water Demand,” Water
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. JWARP
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. JWARP
Resources Research, Vol. 36, No. 8, 2000, pp. 2321-
2339. doi:10.1029/1999WR900234
[16] C. Tortajada and E. Casteian, “Water Management for a
Megacity: Mexico City Metropolitan Area,” Ambio, Vol.
32, No. 2, 2003, pp. 124-129.
[17] Institut de Recherche pour la Developpement, “Water
Supplies to Mexico City,” 2012.
[18] M. J. Chiroma, D. Yahaya, D. Kazaure, B. Yahya, A.
Karaye and J. Gashua, “Water Management Issues in the
Hadejia-Jama’are-Komadugu-Yobe Basin: DFID-JWL and
Stakeholders Experience in Information Sharing, Reach-
ing Consensus and Physical Interventions.”
hemes/BasinWaterManagement/RIPARWI N/PDFs/14%2
[19] B. Lankford, “Facilitation of Water Sharing Arrange-
ments in the Hadejia Jama’are Komadugu Yobe Basin
(HJKYB)—With the River Basin Game Dialogue Tool,”
Overseas Development Group (ODG), School of Devel-
opm e n t Stud i es, U n i v ersi t y o f E a st A n g l i a , N o r w i ch, 2005.
[20] D. Belt, “The Comi ng Storm, ” National Geographic, Vol.
219, No. 5, 2012, pp. 58-83.
[21] S. Robinson, “How Bangladesh Survived a Flood,” New
York Times, 2007.,8599,1685330,
[22] Living Victoria Ministerial Advisory Council, Depart-
ment of Sustainability and Environment; Victorian Gov-
ernment, “Living Melbourne, Living Victoria Roadmap,”
[23] Murray-Darling Basin Authority , “About MDB Initiativ e,”
Canberra City, 2002.
[24] N. Martin, “Watershed Management in the Murray Dar-
ling Basin, Australia,” C. W. Slaughter and N. Berg, Eds.,
Proceedings of the Ninth Biennial Watershed Manage-
ment Council Conference, Oakland, 2006, University of
California Water Resources Center Report No. 107, pp.
[25] L. Vasek and L. Wilson, “’Long-Overdue’ Murray-Dar-
ling Basin Plan Becomes Law,” The Australian, 2012.
law /story-e6frg6px-1226521990067
[26] (ICLEI) International Council on Local Environmental
Initiatives, “Municipal leaders’ Communiqué to the Con-
ference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention
on Climate Change,” Berlin, 1995.
[27] (ICLEI) International Council on Local Environmental
Initiatives, “ICLEI’s Climate Resilient Communities Pro-
gram Addresses Adaptation, Vulnerabilities,” ICLEI—
Local Governments for Sustainability, 2007.
[28] (ICLEI) International Council on Local Environmental
Initiatives, “ICLEI—Local Governments for Sustainabil-
ity: Local Solutions to Global Challenges,” ICLEI Center,
Bonn, 2010.
[29] H. Selin and S. D. VanDeveer, “Climate Leadership in
Northeast North America,” In: H. Selin and S. D. Van-
Deveer, Eds., Changing Climates in North American Po-
litics, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 11-135.
[30] M. C. Lemos and J. L. F. Oliveira, “Can Water Reform
Survive Politics? Institutional Change and River Basin
Management in Ceará, Northeast Brazil,” World Devel-
opment, Vol. 32, No. 12, 2004, pp. 2121-2137.
[31] M. C. Lemos and J. L. F. Oliveira, “Water Reform across
the State/Society Divide: The Case of Ceará, Brazil,” In-
ternational Journal of Water Re sources Development, V ol.
21, No. 1, 2005, pp. 93-107.
[32] “Nile Basin Initiative,” 2010.
[33] “The Rights to the River,” The Sustainable Water Re-
sources E-Journal, 2009.
[34] J. Fleishman and K. Linthicum, “Demands on the Nile
imperil Egypt’s Lifeline,” Los Angeles Times, 2010, pp.
A-1, 6-7.