Water-resilient communities

We assist urban and rural communities in Australia and around the world to navigate water related challenges created by extensive catchment modification, rapid urbanisation and changing climates.

What do we mean by resilience?

Resilience can be thought of as the ability to recover and to continue to function following some form of disturbance. We are all familiar with the idea that individuals can be resilient, that despite adverse conditions and surprise events, people can pick themselves up and continue on, sometimes after having adapted themselves in some way. But what does this mean in general terms and how does it apply to communities?

Early views on resilience

The idea of resilience stems from work on ecology and ecosystems across the 20th century, where it was repeatedly observed that plant and animal communities would recover to their original state following some form of external disturbance, such as wildfire or grazing. Gradually, the plants and animals that formed the community would reassemble over time and the same mix and structure of species would re-establish itself. In some way, the kind of ecological community present before the disturbance was resilient, and able to reform and recover.

What was also observed was that if too great a disturbance or too frequent a series of disturbances occurred, then sometimes those ecological communities would not recover. They would remain more or less permanently altered, often in some form of degraded state.

These early observations formed the idea that a system – in this case the ecological community – could be resilient and recover its structure and functions within certain limits of environmental disturbance.

Applying the concept of resilience today

This concept of resilience is now used to think about, plan and manage a much broader range of systems, including social, economic and ecological processes and the links between them. If we can somehow focus on enhancing the properties of these systems and processes that create their resilience, then we have a way of helping to ensure that those systems remain sustainable over time.

How do resilience and sustainability relate?

Sustainability is a useful boundary object – a term that is understood well enough to allow people to engage with each other meaningfully in discussing how to achieve it. From a systems perspective, one interpretation of sustainability is that the functions of a system can be maintained into the future, that those functions will not deteriorate or collapse because of the internally driven dynamics of that system or because of any external or environmental disturbances.

Resilient communities

Communities, either rural and relatively small, or urban and relatively large, can be thought of as having functions that must be maintained over time. Examples of these functions include water supply, sanitation, health, food provision, energy provision, waste collection and disposal, housing, employment and live-ability.

If any of those functions deteriorate or are lost, the sustainability of the whole community may be threatened. So, sustainability for communities is managing the internal processes that underpin and drive vital functions, and with managing the resilience of those functions to external disturbances. Such disturbances may be short, sharp and sudden (disasters) or longer, more drawn out and gradually increasing (pressures).

Recovering and re-establishing functions

A community’s ability to recover functions following, or in response to a disturbance, is partly about how quickly it can re-establish functions. But it is also about how processes of anticipation and learning are built and maintained, so that functions may be re-established, but not necessarily in the same way. For example, following a long-term drought, the water supply function of a community may be re-established by deploying a more diverse range of water supply systems to be better able to cope with different climatic conditions. Or, following a flood, a community may opt to recover by making room for the river and shifting urban functions away from waterways, instead of installing hard infrastructure to resist flooding. In this way, resilience can be thought of as being a consequence of having the capacity to adapt, which itself is a consequence of being able to learn and act at different scales. It is also about being able to be flexible and change directions or do things in other ways.

Resilience can also be thought about as being concerned with reducing the vulnerability of our community functions to the effects of external changes and disturbances. Diversifying water supply systems and sources is an example of this – a change that will enhance the resilience of a community by reducing the vulnerability of that community’s water supply to changes in the availability of any single water supply source.


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