Adapting to Climate Change in Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Service


Since the beginning of civilisation, humans have extracted natural resources to fulfil their own basic need; creating an equilibrium condition between nature and human for several millennia. It is only in the most recent few centuries, humans have begun to systematically exploit nature to fulfil increasing demand due to exponential population growth and changing lifestyles. The population are seen as consumers, while the market, and state to some degree, facilitates the continuous flow of supply (goods and services) to meet the demand; resulting in natural resource depletion and pollution. It seems clear that the capital accumulation process has caused ecological rifts. 

1.       Introduction

Drinking water supply and sanitation services (WSS) are essential for human health. There is growing evidence that its service is threatened by the impact of climate change. Resilience thinking is proposed by scholars, who are joined in Resilience Alliance, as a framework to adapt such change because it is considered to be the best approach for managing ecological systems in the face of uncertainty (Cote & Nightingale, 2012). Although resilience theory is promoted as the best approach, there are two concerns that highlight the importance of undertaking a climate change adaptation analysis in WSS. First, there is gap in the academic literature which explores the role of resilience thinking to climate change adaptation in WSS. Second, resilience thinking, so far, has not sufficiently addressed the critique from a political economy and political ecology school of thought; to disentangle power asymmetry in politic, economy, cultural and social relation (Hornborg, Clark, & Hermele, 2013; Swyngedouw, 2009). As consequence, positive outcomes of climate adaptation could not be realised without excluding particular social, economic and cultural groups.

This essay will investigate how resilience thinking has framed climate change impact and shaped the adaptation in water supply and sanitation services. In addition, it will seek to make a contribution from political ecology point of view; to what extent the embodied power relations of a global-market-economy influence WSS in the context of climate change adaptation. Hypothetically resilience thinking is the most promising approach for managing complexity and uncertainty in Socio Ecological System (SES) (Armitage et al., 2008; Folke et al., 2010; Keim, 2008; Pahl-Wostl, 2007; Smit & Wandel, 2006; Tompkins & Adger, 2004; B. Walker, Holling, Carpenter, & Kinzig, 2004). However, it is also argued, some resilience thinking concepts, such as, adaptive management, adaptability and resilience, mask the inequality relations between actors across scale. Swyngedouw (2013) argued that adaptability and resilience are “conflict-avoiding jargons” (p. 826), which prevent the realisation of resilience thinking’s ultimate goals; to solve the environmental problem while sustaining social and economic development. Likewise, resilience thinking application tends to be a “power-laden” and over-simplification approach that offers opportunity for change to particular groups, while sophistically obscuring the associated cost to other (Cote & Nightingale, 2012, p. 484).

By addressing the political ecology critique of resilience thinking, this essay provides an insight regarding the strength and the weakness of both approaches and fills the gap in the literature. In order to do so, this paper is divided four sections. The first section introduces the importance of this literature study. The second section describes some key concepts of resilience thinking that may relate to WSS, such as resilience, adaptability, vulnerability and adaptive management. This section also explains the political ecology concepts, such as capital accumulation, metabolism (power relation) in hydro-social cycle and techno-fix. Based on these concepts, the third section analyses two academic papers on WSS adaptation and bring two concepts into focus, resilience (Howard et al., 2010) and vulnerability assessment (Heath, Parker, & Weatherhead, 2012). The final section summarises and concludes the literature discussion.

2.       Literature Review

Resilience Thinking

The advocates of resilience theory emphasis three interconnect aspects which shape SES; resilience, adaptability and transformability (Armitage et al., 2008; Folke, Hahn, Olsson, & Norberg, 2005; Folke et al., 2010; B. Walker et al., 2004). Folke et al. (2010) define resilience as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure and feedbacks, and therefore identity, that is, the capacity to change in order to maintain the same identity,” (, p. 22). Nature or social disturbance, like a water shortage or flood due to climate change, trigger innovation leading to a more adaptive system, if coupled by self-organisation and distributed control. Innovative response requires strong a social learning process, while self-organisation and distributed control are the result of polycentric governance and collaboration (adaptive management) (B. Walker et al., 2004). As an example, self-organisation and a strong relationship between scientists and activists outside of government could improve the river management resilience from floods, drought and water stagnation that appear more frequent due to climate change (Sendzimir et al., 2008).

Adaptability aspects recognise the importance of human action and the interdependent relationship between human and nature to manage resilience (B. Walker et al., 2004). Folke et al. (2010) argue adaptability is the capacity of an actor including their role, core values, and worldviews, that shape their action (manifested through management regime) to influence resilience. A comprehensive vulnerability assessment will create an insight into the capacity and elucidate key determinants that may advance or prevent the capacity of an actor to manage resilience (Pahl-Wostl, 2009). As an illustration, a study on adaptation to climate induced water shortage showed that actor’s role and responsibility are key determinant in effective collaboration (Ivey, Smithers, de Loë, & Kreutzwiser, 2004). In addition, local community’s knowledge will likely produce built-in resilience that enhances adaptability (Jabeen, Johnson, & Allen, 2010).

Another key concept which is relevant to resilience thinking is vulnerability (Gallopín, 2006; Miller et al., 2010). Vulnerability is an analytical tool to determine the state of susceptibility to be harmed from exposure (Adger, 2006). There is no consensus among scholars to define vulnerability, although various research disciplines have applied vulnerability, including in water (Vörösmarty, Green, Salisbury, & Lammers, 2000). Yet some scholars embrace the plurality of vulnerability definition, particularly in climate change (O’Brien, Eriksen, Nygaard, & Schjolden, 2007). For the last few decades, vulnerability has become an emerging concept in climate science and policy and triggered debate in theory and empirical study, as shown on the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Füssel, 2007). Miller et al. (2010) suggest resilience thinking and vulnerability complement one to another in terms of theory, methodology and application. Theoretically, both concepts emphasis responses to rapid or slow change in SES (Miller et al., 2010). In terms of methodology, an understanding of vulnerability from a community perspective could enhance adaptive capacity (Smit & Wandel, 2006). Some of the examples were shown on community based vulnerability assessment in water and health (Ebi & Semenza, 2008; van Aalst, Cannon, & Burton, 2008). Resilience, adaptability and vulnerability concepts are not only interrelated, but also contribute to translating complex concepts and theory into the application of adaptive management (Smit & Wandel, 2006). To put it briefly, we have to agree with Adger (2006) who concluded vulnerability contributes to the enhancement of resilience thinking rather than being contradictory. Most importantly, it is argued that researchers, practitioners and policy makers will gain benefit in applying resilience thinking and vulnerability, given the synergy of both approaches is a significant element in adaptive management (Adger, 2006; Smit & Wandel, 2006).

Folke et al. (2010) suggest adaptive management is part of resilience thinking which make use of some analytical tools, such as resilience, adaptability and vulnerability. Using resilience thinking in adaptive management, scholars, decision makers and environmental practitioners, are able to assess SES threshold, reveal barriers in governance that strengthen or weaken social ecological resilience, and make use of information to propose a regime shift. In this sense, adaptive management is a learning by doing process which institutional arrangements and ecological knowledge are tested and revised continuously in order to address complex SES problems, including climate change (Tompkins & Adger, 2004).

Adaptive management grows rapidly at the same time with the maturation of resilience thinking. It should also be emphasised that proponents of resilience thinking began to realise to the critique from political ecology scholars. Accordingly, some scholars have incorporated ethical dimensions, like issues on equity and justice, into the body of knowledge of resilience thinking and adaptive management. Doubleday (Doubleday, 2007), for example, has suggested the inclusion of questions regarding power asymmetry in the concept of adaptive management. An adaptive management regime promises a positive response in reducing vulnerability and increasing resilience, through shifting management from predict and control to embracing complexity (Pahl-Wostl, Lebel, Knieper, & Nikitina, 2012). However, there is a question on how to translate the theoretical concept into practice, given that significant change has not yet been realised. For that reason, the current research agenda in water management, particularly in watershed management (Pahl-Wostl, Jeffrey, Isendahl, & Brugnach, 2011; Pahl-Wostl et al., 2012) and urban water management (Brown, Keath, & Wong, 2009; Wong & Brown, 2008), is to ensure sufficient transition from a conventional approach to a more adaptive management.

Political Ecology

Political ecology studies power inequality relationships between political, economic and social factors on one hand, and environmental on the other (Hornborg et al., 2013). Political ecology argued asymmetrical power relationships shape the patterns of resource management. Some examples among academic literature include: privatisation to solve drinking water supply problems that are lacking in developing countries (Swyngedouw, Kaika, & Castro, 2002; Swyngedouw & Heynen, 2003); green economy being used to justify certain types of forest harvesting (Ferrari, 2013); and conflicting interests among various state agencies undermining small scale fishery (Tan?Mullins, 2007). Even though resilience thinking and political ecology are similar in recognising the human relation in SES, the main difference are in – deliberately – politicising or depoliticising environmental issues, both theoretically and empirically (Robbins, 2004). Notwithstanding the various concepts derived from political ecology, this essay will focus on concepts that could useful in framing and shaping WSS adaptation, namely capital accumulation, economic and cultural construction in hydro-social cycle, and techno fix.

Hornborg et al. (2013) argued that capital accumulation processes, which are embodied in Western thought, is one of the main aspects that creates power asymmetry and environmental degradation. The capital accumulation process, as part of capitalism, has threatened SES stability due to its tendency to violate the environment in pursue of endless profit (Hornborg et al., 2013). Since the beginning of civilisation, humans have extracted natural resources to fulfil their own basic need; creating an equilibrium condition between nature and human for several millennia. It is only in the most recent few centuries, humans have begun to systematically exploit nature to fulfil increasing demand due to exponential population growth and changing lifestyles (Hornborg et al., 2013). The population are seen as consumers, while the market, and state to some degree, facilitates the continuous flow of supply (goods and services) to meet the demand; resulting in natural resource depletion and pollution. It seems clear that the capital accumulation process has caused ecological rifts (Hornborg et al., 2013).

From the political ecology point of view, Swyngedouw (2009) argued that water and society are intertwined into what he called as hydro-social cycle. It is important to consider how changes in water resource management are tied to the configuration of social, cultural and economic knowledge rather than physical science (Molle, 2008). In this sense, the way water is politically, socially, culturally, and economically defined is based on how water is engineered, utilised, allocated, managed, as well as governed across political boundaries or between social and economic groups (Swyngedouw, 2005; Swyngedouw, 2009; Swyngedouw, 2013). The hydro-social perspective reveals attributes that may create incentive or disincentive to some groups. By knowing social and economic construction behind the provision of drinking water supply, it becomes possible to recognise who gets the benefit and who should pay the costs.

The economy perspective of water has become orthodoxy since 1992, when the Dublin conference on Water and the Environment endorsed the principle of water as an economic good (Bakker, 2013). Since the notion of water as an economic good was widely accepted, capital accumulation has become possible through privatisation (Bakker, 2007). Nevertheless, there is a lot of evidence of power imbalance and undesirable consequences due to water privatisation. Araral (2009) for example, has synthesised the evidence and concluded that despite its promises, privatisation has failed to increase access to water supply, particularly to poor households in developing countries. Furthermore, a private water company in Bolivia received substantial subsidies from the city council, which has enabled them to supply water to richer consumers only, while less advantage households and indigenous people were abandoned (Bakker, 2008).

As important as an economy viewpoint, a critical analysis to cultural configuration will also help to understand the power asymmetry that may generate positive behaviour in preserving the environment (Sheridan, 2013). Cole’s (2012) study regarding the correlation between water and tourism in Bali showed how water is deeply intertwined with culture construction. Bali is strongly influence by cultural tradition, where the society is stratified and patriarchal. Certain groups of people will likely experience unequal access in decision making and distribution of work, for instance women. In the context of water scarcity, this cultural configuration may become a problem as women will probably be exposed to unequal work distribution, for example they have to fetch water for the whole family (Cole, 2012). Alternatively, cultural configuration may also create incentives for environmental protection, in this case manifested in “subak,” a pre-colonial adaptive management group of farmers that manage water allocation for agriculture in Bali (Cole, 2012). The role of subak is important, not only in ensuring water is sufficiently and equitably shared among farmers, but also in maintaining the religious function (Cole, 2012). Equally, Sheridan (2013) found the underlying factor that made Tanzanian irrigation systems resilient to an adverse is the pre-colonial cultural formation which placed older men to control the labour of women and younger men. This evidence highlights the importance of culture configurations that makes irrigation systems in Bali and Tanzania sustainable.

One of the main critiques raised by political ecology to capitalism is the tendency to rely on technology-fix to address SES problems (Clark & York, 2013). The ecological crisis, including climate change is perceived as a technical problem that can easily be fixed by technological measures. Furthermore, Clark and York (2013) argue that the best way to initiate technology innovation is to let the market evolve (capitalism) and find a technical solution for each negative impact to the environment. However, scholars in political ecological have come to a consensus that capitalism exploits natural resources and creates ecological rifts (Hornborg et al., 2013). Therefore, there is danger in relying completely on the market to address environmental problem: first, there is no assurance that a technological fix could repair the ecosystem damage; second, even if it could solve a problem, it may relocate the environmental impact to another location; third, with a techno-fix comes a capital shift, which may create a double burden to the nature; and fourth, it implies the notion that if everything can be fixed, there is no need to take action to protect the nature (Clark & York, 2013). Furthermore, Araral also emphasis that private sector’s “investment” does not necessarily mean that the fund to expand WSS service comes from private companies pocket. It appears that most private companies relied heavily on the source from governments, donors, commercial and development banks, and bonds.

 3.       Discussion

There is minimal peer-reviewed academic literature in WSS adaptation. Most of literature associated with climate change adaptation related to WSS are segregated mainly into water resource management (Kundzewicz et al., 2008; Pahl-Wostl, 2007; Thomas & Twyman, 2005),  urban water supply (Muller, 2007), community based capacity (Ebi & Semenza, 2008; Ivey et al., 2004), and public health (Keim, 2008; McMichael, Woodruff, & Hales, 2006). Conversely, there are many documents with deep analysis on climate change adaptation in WSS found in grey documents published by institutions: including; government based research organisations like the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR, 2009); international organisations, such as WHO (2009) and the World Bank (2013); consultancy or research institution namely International Water and Sanitation Center (IRC) (Batchelor, Schouten, Smits, Moriarty, & Butterworth, 2009; Batchelor, Smits, & James, 2011) and Overseas Development Institute (ODI) (Calow et al., 2011); and project initiatives such as water and sanitation for urban poor (WUSP) (Heath, Parker, & Weatherhead, 2010). To date, there are three peer-reviewed papers in WSS adaptation written by the contributors of WHO, WUSP and IRC studies. Nonetheless, in order to limit the scope of discussion, the following section will discuss two peer-reviewed papers with a focus on resilience (Howard et al., 2010) and vulnerability assessment (Heath et al., 2012).

Howard et al. (2010) published a paper based on the global study vision 2030 supported by WHO (2009). They suggested that WSS infrastructure and management systems are the most vulnerable to current climate related threats. They categorised technology into high, medium and low resilience. The WSS infrastructure that can endure under the worst climate conditions is considered high resilience technology. The medium resilience means WSS facility is able to retain under a significant number of climate conditions, while the low resilience under restricted climate conditions (Howard et al., 2010). For example, tubewells (borehole) and water piped are categorised as high and low resilience technology respectively (Howard et al., 2010). Howard et al. (2010) also proposed technological fix to reduce vulnerability. Technical adaptation proposed in water supply, including the use of multiple water sources, innovative technology and high quality of infrastructure, machinery (pump) and material (such as pipe and fittings). Similarly they proposed high technology in sanitation such as re-engineering sewer systems to separate stormwater from wastewater. However, they also point out the distinction between water and sanitation adaptation, “management approaches are more important than technology in building resilience for water supply, but the reverse is true for sanitation,” (Howard et al., 2010, p. 2). It is also noted that the implementation of a technological fix will rely mainly on technical and financial capacities, which are difficult to be provide by most developing countries.

In contrast with the previous paper, Heat et al. (2012) assessed vulnerability of informal settlements in three Africa’s cities to examine climate adaptation in WSS. Their focused study helped to avoid generalisation. The study suggested local community or small scale WSS providers could have built-in resilience to adapt to climate change (Heath et al., 2012). It also should be noted the community has to fully engage in identifying vulnerability and developing adaptation plans, since they know best about local condition best and probably possess built-in adaptive capacity (Heath et al., 2012). However, the successfulness of community adaptation depends on effective collaboration among stakeholders; especially if the city council or even national government are actively involved (Heath et al., 2012). Another significant finding was how low education levels and poverty may hamper any adaptation measures. Therefore, community education and climate change awareness should be included on WSS adaptation. By applying certain vulnerability assessment tool, Heath et al. (2012) emphasised, “… the fact that adapting to climate change does not necessarily involve many entirely new processes or techniques; instead, it requires a combination of capacity building and technological and managerial measures,” (p. 634), which promoted as, “good (adaptive) water management” (p. 619).

Howard et al. (2010) advocated, “an effective response to increase climate change resilience in the drinking water and sanitation sector— whether at local, national or international level—will include: promoting resilient technologies, adapting or updating technical norms and regulations and enhancing management of services” (p. 9). Some key determinants in enhancing management of WSS service are human resources (quality and quantity) and financial capacity. Indeed, the management challenge in developing countries is higher than in developed countries, mainly due to low financial capacity to maintain and expand the service (Howard et al., 2010). Perhaps, this was the underlying reason why Howard et al. (2010) convincingly argued to open financial option, “… (except from) tariffs, government support, donors or (if necessary) from private capital markets,” (p. 7). Heat et al. (2012) also indicated the need to seek financial support from private sector, but they were not as straight forward as Howard et al. (2010). Nevertheless, both agreed that policy review should be initiated to enable reform in institution and management; a precondition before privatisation could take place.

Resilience thinking framed and shaped WSS adaptation in several ways. First, resilience thinking helped to reveal the capacity of actors, including their role and responsibility to influence resilience. As shown by Heath et al. (2012) some local communities have built-in resilience, but at the same time a lack of government support will prevent their potential adaptability to be realised. Second, it supports the argument that adaptive capacity is context-specific which differs from one place to another (Smit & Wandel, 2006). Thus, a local level assessment on resilience technology is more preferable than generalisation, given climate variability, social capital, and other aspects that may vary in different locations. Third, it becomes evident a self-organised community is more resilience to climate change, for example a small-scale WSS provider in Africa. Proponents of resilience thinking associate self-organisation to social capital and learning processes (Adger, 2000; Isham & Kähkönen, 1999; Pahl-Wostl et al., 2007). In other words, social capital and social learning are significant determinants that shape resilience. Fourth, Howard’s et al. (2010) study emphasised climate change may trigger innovative responses, including introduction of new WSS technology. It is doubtful resilience thinking could propose adaptation innovation in WSS other than technological innovation. Fifth, both Howard et al. (2010) and Heath et al. (2012) concluded adaptive water and sanitation management is needed to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience. Adaptive management embraces diversity of local adaptation instead of offering a pre-cast solution (Cote & Nightingale, 2012).

From a political ecology point of view, it can be argued that a techno fix becomes resilience thinking’s mantra in order to adapt to climate change impact. Technology fix approaches could create some negative consequences during and after new technology is implemented. First the technology fix approach is probably more complex and requiring high technology systems, second, a techno fix may require a lot of funds to construct, operate and maintain the facility, and third, the new technology may collapse if the institution, culture and community behaviour are not well prepared (Clark & York, 2013). Howard et al. (2010) and Heath et al. (2012) tends to overlook the influence of the market system that may come together with a techno fix (Molle, 2008). As the resilience thinking analysis indicates private sector involvement is needed to solve the problem, it will probably lead to capital accumulation. As a consequence, instead of solving the problem, techno fix may create an adverse impact to the environment in other forms. For example, Howard et al. (2010) suggestion to use rainwater to preserve water will trigger Greenhouse Gas Emission, if a fossil fuelled pump is used to flow and distribute water from the rainwater tank. Similarly, Howard’s et al. (2010)  suggestion to use multiple water sources could solve water scarcity in one particular location, but at the same time may relocate the problem to another place (Hornborg et al., 2013).

Interestingly, there is a need to further investigate, why built-in resilience has occurred in one particular location and not appeared in other localities? Heath et al. (2012)  found community based water and sanitation service could have built-in resilience, while Horward et al. (2010) doubted the claim and argued, “…community-managed water supplies (and sanitation) have much lower potential resilience,” (p. 7). Resilience thinking explains built-in resilience as the product of strong social capital that binds people, encourages social learning and enhances a network in a self-organising way (Adger, 2000). Pretty and Ward (2001) found, community groups which have stronger trust, rules, norms and sanctions could persist in environmental change. However, there is conflicting feature in built-in resilience. On one hand, built-in resilience contains asymmetry political and cultural power relation. On the other hand, the unequal power relation become the driving force that maintains resilience (Cole, 2012; Sheridan, 2013). Cole (2012) argues the stratified and patriarchal system that shapes Subak in Bali will likely sustain water management resilience in the modern world. Furthermore, Sheridan (2013) acknowledges that although the system was not fair, the traditional irrigation system in Tanzania has been proven to work well. There are two principal reasons to explain the underlying cause of empirical evidence; first the elders were respected and trusted; second, even though there no written rule, the norms and sanctions are considered fair and well accepted by the community rather than the modern law (Sheridan, 2013). Perhaps, at this point, political ecology and resilience thinking provides convergent explanations that social capital, including trust, rules and norms could lead to built-in resilience.

Although political ecology is tempting, on the practical level, political ecology has offered little contribution to translate its analytical findings into change. Walker (2005; 2006) argued political ecology is marginalised in public debates; including in major journals that widely circulate among development professionals, decision makers and politician. In quite interesting ways, he also showed how most political ecologists are academician and only a few have access and contribute in wider spheres (P. Walker, 2006). Similarly, political ecology has focused too much on the political side of ecology, such as marginalisation, environmental conflict, and social movement (Robbins, 2004). This condition may impede bringing political ecology critiques into practical action; especially on the policy influence processes (P. Walker, 2006).

4.       Conclusion

As discussed, resilience thinking opens the opportunity to reveal barriers in adapting to climate change and may facilitate the transitional process to more adaptive WSS management. It seems the resilience thinking analysis may lead to a conclusion that technical, financial and management capacities are the main constraint in WSS adaptation. It is noted a vulnerability assessment at the local level is more effective than a global analysis of resilience technology. However, changes at the local level also need support and facilitation from regional, national even global actors. Likewise, political ecology is useful to expose asymmetry of power relations. Political ecology perceived techno-fix rather than technology resilience as the result of resilience thinking. In addition, political ecology considers financial constraint in WSS adaptation as an opportunity for the private sector to gain capital accumulation which in turn creates environmental degradation.



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