On Extremes, Resilience and Wisdom…

Quite a lot of familiar keywords around IWA’s World Water Congress, particularly on Tuesday’s keynote, discussions and presentations. Water Wise cities is certainly part of the language in IWA now, since the launch of the new principles for Water Wise cities – echoing KWR’s science vision for a Water Wise World and indeed our recent work on resilience within the Water Wise Cities project.

Other terms on the other hand, are in visible decline: metabolism modelling is reaching a phase where the fact that the concept was probably more ambitious than the tools developed to support it is being slowly recognized – but is perhaps poised for a comeback within the context of circular economy. Resilience was also very much part of the language – but perhaps in a more exploratory way: IWA for example hosted a set of workshops on resilience of coastal cities to extreme events where questions of what the definition of an extreme event actually is were posed together with questions about what resilience means for the cities exposed to these events.

What was interesting to see was that from a stakeholder perspective, an extreme event was more about extreme consequences rather than extreme occurrence: a 1000-year flood in the middle of nowhere is not as extreme as a 100-year event in a dense urban area. This however raises a question on what guidelines and regulations following this paradigm should like.

Working backwards from impacts, it was suggested that the challenge for engineers is to translate impact-oriented approaches into event-oriented standards, also possibly resulting in different protection levels for different parts of the same infrastructure. This place-specific take on engineering design may seem intuitive, but of course regulations are notoriously case independent. In a changing environment, perhaps guaranteeing a (best practice) process in design for resilience, with (significant) room for customisation and adaptation to local contexts and a more or less continuous process of correcting the ever-present mismatches between planning and implementation, could be more flexible and responsive that even the best of hardwired regulations. Food for thought?