Promoting Adaptive Water Management

Most of the laws and institutions governing water around the world — at the international, national, and local levels — are flawed in one fundamental respect: they do not account for the complexity or uncertainty inherent in water management. Yet, we live in a complex world full of uncertainty. The nonlinear nature of the hydrologic cycle is well-documented. As the debate on climate change and climate change models illustrates, it can be notoriously difficult to develop models that accurately predict the hydrologic cycle and the factors that affect it.

Despite the complexity and uncertainty inherent in water management, there are immediate needs that must be met, and regulators and water managers need to make decisions now. People need water for domestic, agricultural, industrial, and commercial purposes; it simply is not possible to wait to make decisions on the use and allocation of water until comprehensive studies are conducted. Adaptive management provides a framework for governing water resources in a way that can account for the various uncertainties. While water managers are familiar with the principles and operation of adaptive management, most of the legal and institutional frameworks have yet to incorporate adaptive water management. In many cases, legal frameworks include some of the requisite tools — including monitoring and assessment — but without necessarily assembling them in the rubric of adaptive water management. In such cases, the primary missing element is the recognition of the provisional nature of the legal and institutional response, and the associated iterative process that defines adaptive water management.

Currently, ELI is developing a series of projects to enhance the adaptive capacity of laws and institutions in a set of aquatic ecosystems that pose particular concerns due to their fragility and critical importance to local livelihoods. Through this work, ELI expects to make a practical impact at the local level by enhancing resiliency of vulnerable institutions and communities to respond to the shifting mosaic of issues that are entailed in sound water management. We also expect to develop and test a suite of tools and mechanisms that can be adopted into legal and institutional frameworks around the world to enhance adaptive management of water resources.