Why and how drinking water companies should take societal collapse scenarios seriously

The recent publication of the first part of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6, IPCC, 2021), aided by numerous occurrences of extreme weather worldwide, has freshly opened eyes to the dangers of man-made climate change. This fits into a broader perspective of planetary boundaries outlined by Rockström et al. (2009): nine parameters, which determine the sustainable habitability of our planet, of which climate change, biodiversity loss and disruption of the nitrogen cycle are now critical.

The important message is that only if we really take action now we may still prevent the worst of consequences for the coming generations and even ourselves with respect to the habitability of our planet, our only home. However, we must face the possibility that we will not succeed. There is great uncertainty about humanity’s ability to respond adequately to these unfolding crises – we see the consumption of fossil fuels rebounding after a pandemic-induced dip whilst 100 countries agree to continue deforestation until 2030 at COP26 in Glasgow, for example.  Moreover, Earth system contains several self-reinforcing aspects for which tipping points may soon be or may already have been passed. This means that human-initiated changes are triggering even greater natural changes. This was described very clearly in a Nature paper by Timothy Lenton and others, appropriately entitled “Climate tipping points – too risky to bet against”.

Picture by Wojciech Linert via Pixabay.

There are scientists who believe that some of these tipping points have already been passed. In any case, the extreme climate change we may face as a result may lead to the collapse of society in the near future (Servigne & Stephens, How Everything Can Collapse. A Manual for our Times. Polity Press, Jem Bendell, 2020, Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. Revised 2nd edition. Such a collapse scenario may be one that not all agree with, but still we, as a society and as the water sector, need to take this scenario seriously for a number of reasons:

  • serious climate and other scientists take this very seriously;
  • societies have collapsed on many occasions in the past, and in multiple cases regional climate change has been identified as an important driver for these collapses;
  • there is a lot of uncertainty encapsulated in climate scenarios; the 1.5 and 2 degree objectives of the Paris agreement are generally interpreted in terms of a 66% likelihood of reaching these goals – what about the fat tail of the probability distribution, i.e. the non-negligible likelihood of ending up far beyond? (see this paper);
  • the mechanisms of the tipping points are generally not included in these scenarios and the underlying models (AR6 explicitly acknowledges the possibility of low-likelihood high-impact scenarios that include tipping points);
  • there are suggestions that there may be a systematic underestimation of the magnitude and consequences of climate change in IPCC reports, though they are a great feat indeed, due to political influence and avoiding extreme predictions in the consensus model (see here and here).

So why might (extreme) climate change lead to societal collapse? There are multiple reasons:

  • a reduction of crop yields and a shift of cultivation zones are projected, which may limit the availability of food;
  • die-off of marine ecosystems by ocean acidification and warming may limit the availability of food;
  • changing patterns of precipitation may limit the availability of water and food;
  • a changing suitability for human habitation of some parts of the world may lead to mass migration.

All of the above may lead to conflict.

Note that here the focus is on climate change, but similar arguments can be made for other planetary boundaries as presented by Rockström.

From this perspective, it seems obvious that mankind is betting on the wellbeing of future generations to an extent that is not well reflected in political action and communication surrounding these. I will not dwell on repeating the point that has been made by so many others that we need to do more. What I want to talk about here is how the drinking water sector should be dealing with the societal collapse scenario. It is clear from the previous list that the water-food nexus is at the core of the issue.

To start with, it would be good to include the collapse scenario in risk analyses performed by all agents in the drinking water sector. The commonly used risk matrix approach is illustrated below. I have taken the liberty of adding an additional column to the most extreme that is generally used (catastrophic, involving multiple deaths and large sums of money in terms of damages). Assigning numerical values to both likelihood and impact and considering the products of these terms allows one to rank their severity. One can debate whether a 6 for an existential risk has an appropriate proportionality with respect to the other categories, but that does not matter for the point which I want to make.

The point is that even if we consider the collapse scenario to be extremely unlikely, putting it in the rare category, and even if we ignore the existential impact category that I have added, societal collapse turns up as a moderate risk in the matrix. But we do not know that it is extremely unlikely, so unlikely or possible seem to be equally plausible, which would make it a high to extreme risk for any water sector entity.

Treating the possibility of societal collapse as a real risk of moderate to extreme magnitude logically results in actions being taken to mitigate the risk and/or deal with the consequences. These could/should include:

  • being more vocal towards governments with respect to the need for climate action at the organizational level;
  • analyze the consequences of (partial) collapse scenarios, including: 1) strong increase or decrease of water demand due to migration/refugees (both ways), 2) physical damage to infrastructure, 3) loss of qualified personnel, 4) reduced availability of electricity, 5) erosion of financial sustainability of water companies, 6) reduced availability of technological components/chemicals, decline of international trade, transport & financial system, 7) reduced availability of data and communications infrastructure, 8) pollution of sources due to breakdown of containment of chemical or nuclear waste facilities;
  • learning from water sector agents that are currently struggling to maintain a level of service in conflict zones or have done so in the recent past (see e.g. here and here);
  • applying the concepts of deep adaptation as proposed by Jem Bendel, including evaluating and improving resilience from a (partial) collapse point of view, reconsidering energy-intensive processes, and rediscovery of discarded techniques;
  • and in line with the prior points, when building big systems and capitalizing on all benefits that digital water has to offer, build in the possibility to scale-back to small, discretely operable subsystems that can be run and maintained using minimal means and a minimal, highly-specialized workforce.

The recently concluded COP26 in Glasgow shows that the international community is taking careful steps to avoid catastrophic consequences of extreme climate change. The collapse scenario is not a given, but a possibility that we can (with the tipping-point caveat) and should still prevent. However, it is also not a negligible impossibility. From the perspective of good risk management, the drinking water sector would therefore be wise to include the scenario of societal collapse, in terms of the risk matrix with a (very) small likelihood and a very large impact and therefore constituting a moderate risk at the very least, in its strategy development. Many of the measures considered for increasing resilience are useful in this regard, though reconsidering them with long-term disruption associated with collapse may be in order – KWR’s research in the analysis and optimization of resilience may be useful here). As the scale of drinking water supply systems increases and their dependency on digital technology grows, it seems wise to always build in a fallback option, which would make it possible to continue supplying water on a small scale and with minimal (technological) resources if social conditions deteriorate for a long time.

A more elaborate consideration of this issue is presented in a trend alert entitled “Collapsologie en diepe adaptatie”, available to the participants of the Joint Research Programme of 11 Dutch and Flemish water utilities (BTO).