Water Governance: A viable alternative to water management?


This past week, I had the opportunity to meet with and learn from Drs. Pim Nijssen and Aline te Linde, consultants and water governance experts from the Dutch management and consulting firm Twynstra Gudde, who were visiting Miami Beach as participants in a knowledge exchange, “Resilient Miami Beach.” Additionally, they collaborated with academics at FAU, with civil engineers and landscape architects from a local engineering firm, Chen Moore, as well as the South Florida Water Management District about possibilities for responding to Florida/ the Netherlands’ shared challenges with water management and climate change adaptation planning. Throughout our conversations that week, Pim and Aline were extremely careful to emphasize to me that they were not here to prescribe “A Solution,” but rather to learn about the differences in Florida’s regional and political challenges, as compared with the Netherlands’ distinct challenges, in order to better understand how to develop policy responses for securing our regions’ economic, environmental, social, and political contexts.

The purpose of Resilient Miami Beach – a collaborative knowledge exchange between the Dutch Consulate, local city planners, architects, academics, and consultants, was to discuss how/whether Dutch planning/ management perspectives could be feasible for local policy and most importantly, to discuss how to take advantage of opportunities that we (Floridians) may not be aware of because of our proximity to our own problems. [as a side note: much academic research supports this perspective – that an outside expert’s opinion can be extremely beneficial in enabling insider-experts to develop creative and innovative solutions; see Lakhani et al., 2007, “The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving”]

The Dutch approach to adaptation policy – integrated, collaborative, and layered – is opposed to a U.S. approach, which is often fragmented, linear, and dependent upon what is explained below as the “prediction imperative.” The Dutch have had hundreds of years of experience with water management, and more recently, at least 60 years of experimentation with more modern approaches to water management technologies and policies (i.e. structural solutions and the coastal spine approach) and despite our cultural and political differences, learning about their approaches is likely to help us determine the possibilities for what adaptive strategies for south Florida may entail.

A few days before we were to meet in Miami for the seminar, Pim asked me to think about how to situate Florida’s unique regional challenges to adaptation and to about how the U.S. political system responds, or is deliberating about responding, to these challenges. What follows is my attempt at developing a clear answer to his question.

My answer is concerned with how to synthesize three core ideas: the economic value of this coastal area, the local and national attitudes toward climate risks, and alternative approaches for policy making under conditions of extreme/deep uncertainty. Synthesizing these concepts creates a narrative about this region that may help our Dutch experts to work with us in approaching our challenges with a similar type of “action-biased” policy making that has enabled both their short-term survival and long-term contingency planning.

Economic value and International Implications   

The economic value of Florida, and in particular the cities of Tampa and Miami, isn’t just important on a local scale, as a recent World Bank publication suggests. The findings of this study identify the 10 international cities most vulnerable to damaging floods, as a result of sea level rise. In terms of overall cost of damage, Miami is number two on this list; New York is number three, New Orleans, four, and Tampa, seven. Boston follows at number eight, meaning that U.S. cities constitute half of the world’s vulnerable coastal cities. The study warns that flood damage could rise to $1 trillion a year if cities don’t take steps to adapt – so the responsibility for adaptation in US isn’t simply a national issue; it’s an international risk. This study prompted much conversation between myself, Pim and Aline, regarding how to use economic analyses with public values analyses to create collaborative responses (*not solutions) to these risks. What are the possibilities for using economic data with local/ public values priorities to re-frame climate change communications and therefore elicit local/ public concern and action? As I learned this week, a major component of Twynstra Gudde’s approach to answering these questions depends on:

  1. Responding versus prescribing solutions
  2. Identifying local attitudes about risk versus relying on a universal “Public Value,” as is often assumed by U.S. climate change communications’ framing of adaptation strategies (see Nisbet, “Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement; http://blog.lib.umn.edu/burn0277/pa5012/readings/Nisbet%202000%20-%20Communicating%20Climate%20Change.pdf)

Furthermore, on a national scale, in terms U.S. response to sea level rise, what is the current situation of climate change adaptation policy? In some cases (e.g. Houston, TX “Ike Dike,” which I’ve been learning about from Arno Willems at Iv-Infra) it seems as though we’re learning how to begin responding; to start taking serious action first by accepting deeply uncertain circumstances and then figuring out how to see opportunities for responding – without ignoring the risks and uncertainties that currently exist, and are inevitable to arise in the future. In most others, though, it’s evident that we’re still engaging in vain attempts to predict certainty before responding; choosing only to react to risks rather than to learn how to begin preparing for them.

Response versus Reaction

The results of the World Bank study mentioned above recommends that protecting the cities it identifies as most vulnerable will take substantial investment in structural defenses as well as better planning. The recommendation for better defenses means that more people will be dependent on dikes and sea walls, and that losses when those defenses fail to protect the city will get bigger. Additionally, with better structural defenses, cities will also need better crisis management and contingency planning. This type of integrated approach – synthesizing technological capability with serious attention to attitudes about risk – is what I understand as reinforcing Twynstra Gudde’s stance on collaboration for mutually beneficial solutions: motivating strategies of response that take into consideration multiple stakeholders’ values, versus imposing management plans and universal mandates based solely on economic/ cost-benefits analyses. Theirs is an approach that takes into account technological feasibility, economic viability, and social robustness; synthesizing the priorities of multiple stakeholders. And although the description of this approach may seem straightforward, they would be the first to remind that it is the more difficult (although more rewarding) long-term approach.

This approach is initially more difficult primarily because it operates under a paradigm that is action-biased; risking action within uncertainty to take advantage of existing opportunities via the synthesis of a variety of contradictory stakeholder values. However difficult the approach is initially, though, I ultimately see it as preferred to our current method for managing (or avoiding the management of) deep uncertainties. Our current approach invests in “improving our understanding of the threat of global climate change,” allocating $2.7 billion (a 6.0 percent increase over 2012) for the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) to support research to improve our ability to understand, predict, mitigate, and adapt to global change.

Could that budget be better allocated toward the development of adaptation policies that are more genuinely reflective of public values (i.e. safety, security) and productive economic opportunities?

I will argue, in my dissertation, that our current approach appears futile primarily because deeply uncertain risks like climate change cannot be managed, as “older dangers” once were (Beck, 1992, p. 13). Contemporary risks, as will be explained below, cannot be managed as older dangers once were because they are networked, largely invisible, and often irreversible. They cannot be seen, contained; therefore, they cannot be managed. They must be responded to in the very context in which they exist: under conditions of deep uncertainty.

        The challenge facing government officials in the US today is investing in protection under these premises – before the type of damage that the World Bank is predicting for coastal cities actually occurs. In his presentation at Resilient Miami Beach, Dutch professor and researcher of urban water management and the development of climate resilient cities, Dr. van de Ven, addressed this very challenge and explained the rhetorical differences between responding versus reacting to risk. “Responding,” he explained, means designing an adaptable system, visualizing individual interests, and selecting a strategy that implements a multi-level safety approach (see “Alternative water management options to reduce vulnerability for climate change in the Netherlands,” in Natural Hazards, 2009, v51 i3).

An Integrated Approach: Contextual, Institutional, Relational

Currently, progress toward the development of adaptation policies that respond by synthesizing research results and supporting decision making and risk management has been “inadequate,” per a recent national research council evaluation of US climate science (see Meyer, 2011, “The Public Values Failures of Climate Science in the US” ). Currently, U.S. research and development for climate modeling emphasizes that the production of data that is “better” because of investments in “faster computers” is the priority of the climate modeling enterprise – and therefore, it can be suggested that U.S. climate science is operating under the assumption that certainty (e.g. accurate predictions) is a valuable investment of federal dollars. If this is the case, then it seems as though we are continuing to put ourselves in a position of reacting to risks, versus taking advantage of the existing opportunities to develop more critical responses in anticipation of a variety of potential scenarios. In response to the assumption that accuracy equates with scientific (and public) values, new methods of analysis and planning are being developed as counterparts to this exclusively economic, cost benefits-driven policy justification. Two of the biggest proponents of these new policy methodologies are Dr. Wil Thissen, head of the Policy Analysis section at TU Delft, and Dr. Warren Walker, also of TU Delft, who have recently co-published an edited volume on new directions for public policy analysis (Public Policy Analysis: New Developments, 2013). Within this volume, Thissen & Walker articulate how a dynamic adaptive policy provides an alternative for short- and long-term decision making under conditions of deep uncertainty. Similarly, in the US, researchers at Arizona State University, at the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, have developed an approach to science policy called “public value mapping,” which I see as a viable asset to the dynamic adaptive policy developed by Thissen, Walker, Haasnoot and colleagues in the Technology, Policy & Management section at TU Delft.

This week, Twynstra Gudde described their approach to this theory to our audience at Resilient Miami Beach as an integrated approach that consists of three layers: 1. contextual knowledge, skills, and expertise 2. institutional realities (legislation and funding, etc.) and 3. relational/ social priorities (participation, cooperation, cultural proclivities, etc.). The mesh of these layers is “water governance,” which they describe as a decision making process that consists of:

‐          Accepting shared responsibility (e.g. policy makers aren’t held solely responsible for policy decisions)

‐          Accepting that the solution needs to be an integrative one (e.g. environmental, economic, social)

‐          Accepting the various roles, responsibilities and know-how (e.g. validity of economic analyses with public values analyses)

‐          Investing in a joint process that defines a shared challenge and ambition instead of a solution (e.g. the acceptance of “flexible” responses versus non-negotiable “solutions”)

Risk: Older Dangers versus Contemporary Risks

During our meeting with Chen Moore, the Americans at the table attempted to explain to our Dutch colleagues why such pervasive climate denial exists in the US. In my opinion, the underlying reasons explaining U.S. responses to science policy, and in particular, our perception of deep uncertainties like climate change, has to do with risk, and the ways in which we’ve traditionally been accustomed to managing risk. Contemporary risks, I suggest, cannot be managed; they must be responded to (see Beck, 1992, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity). There is a fundamental rhetorical difference to the implications of these terms, as used within the science policy interface. “Management” implies handling or controlling something successfully – and this is not the understanding within which a flexible, adaptive policy approach can operate. On the other hand, “response” implies a reaction: something done in deference to something else. Responsiveness, in my opinion, provides a more accurate and productive understanding of what a Dutch approach, and especially a Dutch approach for responding to real, widespread, and infinite uncertainties, really entails. Our understanding of and responses to contemporary risks must differ from our understanding and management of what Ulrich Beck calls “older dangers.”

In terms of policy making and the pressure on decision makers from various stakeholder interests, older dangers were risks that could hold some entity/ person accountable for the identified hazards; making it possible to compensate those whose lives had been touched by those particular hazards. Contemporary risks, on the other hand, are “consequences which relate to the threatening force of modernization and to its globalization of doubt” – they are politically reflexive (Beck, p. 21). We can no longer calculate risk as accurately as we may hope: today’s risks often result in systematic and irreversible harm, generally remain invisible, are based on causal interpretations, and thus initially only exist in terms of the scientific or anti-scientific knowledge about them … they can be changed, magnified, dramatized, or minimized within knowledge, and to that extent they are particularly open to social definition and construction. So, in response the question about the existence of climate change denial, I rely on Beck’s theory of the risk society, as it differs from a modern society in which the management of risks (older dangers) was possible and effective. Given contemporary risks, which are largely invisible and globally pervasive, the mass media and the scientific and legal professions in charge of defining risks become key social and political positions (Beck, p. 23) advocating – or denying – their existence.

As a result of pervasive – and successful – communication about climate change denial, one of the most intractable “qualifications” of useful information about the risks inherent in climate change in the US – i.e. urban flooding, sea level rise, storm surge – is the “prediction imperative,” the thinking that adaptation strategies require more accurate and reliable predictions of regional weather and climate extreme events before adaptive decisions can be decisively implemented.  At the moment, the projected 2014 Budget for “Improving our understanding of the threat of global climate change” proposes to allocate $2.7 billion (a 6.0 percent increase over 2012), for the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) to support research to improve our ability to understand, predict, mitigate, and adapt to global change. Could that budget be better allocated toward the development of adaptation policies that are more genuinely reflective of public values (i.e. safety, security)? I would adamantly say “yes,” and I believe that a Dutch approach (see Twynstra Gudde’s layered approach, above) would support this assertion. The challenge for the US, again, is to determine how we can make effective adaptation decisions in the absence of accurate and precise climate predictions (Lempert and Light 111).

     “The lack of climate predictability should not be interpreted as a limit to preparing strategies for adaptation” because if this is so, we’ll face some serious limitations – and economic consequences – in lieu of existing opportunities for responding with preferable, although imperfect, strategies.

Our biggest challenge is to learn how to adapt Dutch thinking – an integrated, collaborative approach – into our existing modes of policy making and to begin funding action (adaptation) versus chasing certainty. This situation is positive and hopeful because I know that we’re learning, however slowly, how to recognize alternative approaches for policy making under extreme uncertainties. Opportunities for knowledge exchange and productive, yet technical and policy-driven conversations, such as Resilient Miami Beach, are indicative of international support for the viability of Florida’s coastal cities as economic, environmental, and social assets.

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About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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