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Making sense of transformation in water-stressed cities

In August 2017, Future Earth co-hosted the 7th International Conference on Sustainability Science in Stockholm, Sweden. This event brought the research community together with diverse innovators outside of academia to address the challenges the world faces in implementing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).  

As part of the conference, a handful of sustainability researchers and practitioners acted as navigators between conference sessions to connect the themes and thoughts shared by participants. Some of those navigators have worked together to produce blog pieces on the challenge of engaging all of humanity in meeting the 21st Century’s ambitious agenda for sustainability.

This conversation will also continue in May 2018 when Future Earth hosts the “Seedbeds for Transformation” conference, which will examine implementing the SDGs in Africa.

If you listen to discussions about global environmental change policy, you’ve probably heard people use the word “transformations,” or the related terms “disruptive transformations” or “transgressions.” They come up in discussions about how the world is trying to meet the Sustainable Development Goals and implement the Paris Agreement on climate change.

But just what is a transformation? In everyday life, it means a change. In global environmental change policy discussions, it refers to what kind of changes are happening, or need to happen, to support the implementation of a particular policy. For example, if you want to provide every resident of a city with clean water the things that likely need to change include infrastructure, institutions and policies and human behaviour. But, if we concentrate only on small changes (incremental or reform) that are disconnected from a systems view of the overall challenge of sustainable water supply, we are unlikely to significantly reduce the threat of future water shortage in some cities.

Residents of Itu, Brazil, protest during severe water shortages that wracked the state of São Paulo in 2014. Photo: Martha Slivak via Flickr

Such issues have come to the forefront recently: In February 2018, the BBC reported on the 11 cities worldwide that are most likely to run out of drinking water soon – they include London, Jakarta, São Paulo and Tokyo – those are in addition to Cape Town, the one we’ve lately been hearing most about.

In global environmental change policy deliberations, the implications that such proposed transformations might have on daily realities are often not sufficiently considered or developed with local people. To attain sustainability, we need to spur large and deep changes – transformations – and to get there we need new ways of being and doing in the world. The theory of transformation illustrates that radically different ways of thinking, organising and acting are fundamental to that needed change (for more on this see Waddell et al. 2015).

So how do we transform? By learning new ways of being and doing. The concept of “learning loops” – single, double and triple loop learning – illustrates the relationship between learning and change (Nielsen 1993; Reynolds 2014; Tosey, Visser and Saunders 2012). A learning loop serves as shorthand for the logic driving the change.  So, a single loop of learning is correlated with incremental change; double loop learning begets reformation; and triple loop learning leads to transformation. Each loop asks different questions, and the more loops you are in, the bigger the solution space. And, importantly, triple loop learning entails asking questions about a range of issues including who should hold decision-making power.

To explain the relevance of triple loop learning and transformation theory in a local context, we return to the example of cities on the brink of water shortage. When drought grips a city and its water supply region, the typical response is to try to increase supply through technical responses. These measures can be considered reforms and are usually done by restrictive policies (see the table below). In the shorter term, cities often take more water from the environment and, in the longer term, build more storage capacity or even construct desalination plants. At the same time, they often seek to decrease demand, by imposing temporary bans on non-essential and then, in severe cases, essential water uses.

As drought persists, interventions usually follow a typical path: The water supply constricts, and city leaders put more restrictions in place. But those interventions rarely go past incremental, techno-fixes, made on the assumption that rains will return. Regardless of shifting patterns of precipitation change, to implement the SDGs we need to change our relationships with the natural environment, including water.

What if the drought-striken city’s citizens and decision-makers were learning together in the triple loop? What if they started thinking of a “new normal” for their city in the face of a changing climate? In the context of water supply, we might start to accept that climate change is causing significant changes in precipitation patterns and stop assuming we can carry on as we were because the rains will be the same as we’ve always known. We might reckon with the fact that we’ve settled massive populations in areas that are not well endowed with natural water resources. We might realise that the connections between water, energy and food are multiple and complex. Because water is woven into every aspect of our lives, we need to be reflexive and critical in how we think about it.

Singapore has launched a campaign to encourage planting green roofs, such as this one at Nanyang Technological University, to sop up water during heavy rains. Photo: trevor.patt via Flickr

One way to change our relationships with water is to examine our expectations; for example, in North America, the typical neighbourhood is carpeted with lush green lawns even when the irrigation demands of these lawns is enormous. Gradually, especially in arid climes, xeriscaped gardens (planted with native species that do not need to be irrigated) are replacing grassy lawns and changing landscaping norms.

We can also look differently at the water resources we do have. Singapore has led efforts to plant “green roofs” across the city to turn high-rise buildings into catchments for collecting rainwater. Many urban areas around the world are taking up its example. In many cities the rise of informality has also raised issues of basic service delivery, including water and sanitation and the modes and forms in which these are provided. Can we continue to rely on current planning methods and approaches, or do we need to rethink and retrain planners in different modes of operation? Some changes will need to transgress existing structures and change long-held cultural and belief systems.

We must collectively seize the opportunity to “think and learn” what transformations may be required to improve social justice, relationships to the environment and decision processes (Patterson et al. 2017; Kaika 2017). Through triple-loop learning for transformation (see table), we can ask questions such as: What role does power play in our context? What adaptations could we implement?  And can we capture the results going forward and learn more from them?

Such questions can, ultimately, help the water-stressed cities of the world to avert a water crisis and use this challenge to “innovate and create previously unimagined possibilities” to safeguard against such crises in the future. Just and fair articulations of the future we want and need will require transformative and transgressive thinking and learning. Addressing what prevents us from transforming is a central question that requires more critical, reflexive effort. Around the world, triple-loop learning can help us to find the answers to these questions.

Is your city on the list of those with pending water shortages? Even if it’s not, can you think of what transformative change would you like to see in how we connect to our water?