Shifting Course: Climate Adaptation for Water Management Institutions

By Eliot Levine, Jonathan Cook, Sarah Freeman (WWF-US)

“Adaptation is not a specialist issue — it’s an issue of how decisions are made, and how to utilize the information provided by specialists in the process of decision making”. – Workshop Participant, 2011 World Water Week  

Water management institutions are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that water is where we want it, when we want it, and how we want it (e.g. potable). This is an unquestionably difficult challenge considering that roughly 7 billion people and a multitude of diverse ecosystems rely on those institutions. However, while the problems associated with an ever increasing demand for freshwater resources are difficult, institutions must also become better equipped to deal with an increasing amount of uncertainty as a result of climate change.

The quality and quantity of water, as well as the timing of when water is available to us, are largely influenced by climate. As such, institutions that manage water are essentially responsible for managing the natural variations in climate. Luckily, as archeological records illustrate, humans have been managing water resources for centuries. Over time, we have become relatively good at this—and we have a number of tools that can help us to do it effectively.

Unfortunately, while these institutions have a history of successfully managing for variation that is within historical limits, climate change is leading to new patterns in variability that diverge from historical trends. This is ramping up pressure on the operational procedures and processes of those institutions — often past their limits of effectiveness.

The big question is whether or not water management institutions can begin to change the ways in which they operate in the face of this increased climatic uncertainty. While there are certainly a number of significant obstacles, institutions also have a great deal of past experience and existing tools from which to develop more flexible, robust operations and make more adaptive decisions.

At the 2011 World Water Week, held in Stockholm back in August, World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and IUCN organized a side event which sought to identify a set of factors that enable or hinder adaptation within water management institutions. We divided up the participants into three groups, each of which was asked to consider the challenges and enabling conditions that face these institutions at different scales: national, basin-level, and local.

To inform this conversation, and to help with the organization of responses from the participants, we utilized a WWF-US report called Shifting Course: Climate Adaptation for Water Management Institutions, The report (which was finalized after World Water Week and published in November) develops a set of 15 principles (or common characteristics) of climate-adaptive water management institutions, which are illustrated through five case studies from around the world. Below is a summary of the group discussions, which we have assembled to illustrate some of the principles that are described in Shifting Course.


Some degree of autonomy within the institution that allows individual staff to carry out responsibilities and make decisions in a way that minimizes bureaucratic barriers and delays.  

The groups representing basin-level and local institutions both indicated that autonomy is a key characteristic needed for successful adaptation efforts. The groups noted that an institution’s relative ability to create adaptive rules and regulations allows it to manage tradeoffs and resolve conflicts over water between different stakeholders.  However, they also noted that institutions at these levels are generally subject to national-level policies and regulations. While those policies are often the reason that an institution has some autonomy in the first place, they can also restrict the institution’s ability to act.

Flexible Resource Management

The ability to flexibly manage (allocate and re-allocate) water in the face of variability, uncertainty, and extreme events.  

Flexibility was most explicitly discussed by the local institutions group. They noted that local institutions are generally small enough and structured in such a way that they can adjust and adapt their allocation of water resources as appropriate to account for change and variation in climate. However, at the national scale it was noted that such management flexibility is rarely considered when developing policies and processes that govern the use of natural resources (including water).

External Regime

The institution is granted authority and a mandate to act appropriately, and the “teeth” to enforce such a mandate.  

Certainly, the external conditions that circumscribe the authority of an institution have significant influence over the institution’s ability to be adaptive to climate change. In our discussions, this principle was discussed from both positive and negative perspectives. The local institutions group noted that national and basin-level institutions have the ability to ensure that local adaptation efforts are feasible by developing management frameworks that guarantee flexibility at a local scale. The basin- and national-level groups, on the other hand, discussed the problems associated with different institutions developing competing visions and policies — which ultimately limits the flexibility and authority of water management institutions at all scales.

Forward Thinking

Thinking ahead to what the future may bring, and trying to incorporate some of this thinking into plans, strategies, and operations.

The ability for institutions to be forward-thinking is especially important for climate change adaptation. Often, ‘mal-adaptive’ practices are a result of prioritizing short-term benefits over long-term considerations. It was noted several times that national-level policy makers often choose to work with stakeholders who deliver short-term progress and often hinder forward-thinking approaches to policy and practice. It was pointed out that in many countries this is a result of short political terms and the need for politicians to show tangible results in a relatively short time-frame.


The institution engages in partnerships and collaborative networks with other organizations.

A lack of resources (technological, informational, and financial) can create various roadblocks to developing effective adaptation measures. Collaboration can often help to reduce these problems, in addition to building the partnerships that are often required for successful adaptation. Unfortunately, as all of the groups noted, institutions are not always set up to collaborate effectively, even internally. It was noted by the basin-level group that water management institutions are often segmented in such a way that collaboration between different sectors can be extremely difficult. Additionally, it was noted that the proliferation of different funders (such as banks, foundations, and government agencies) can undermine collaboration by promoting fragmented (sometimes even competing) priorities and approaches.

Iterative Approaches

Cyclical approaches to project, program, or policy design and management.  

Managing for uncertainty will require institutions to manage resources in a way that recognizes that policies and procedures may need to be reworked from time to time. However, as noted by all the groups, this can be very difficult to achieve for a number of reasons including a lack of strong leadership, entrenched institutional processes, and the general complexity of designing effective iterative approaches. Additionally, it was noted that for an iterative approach to have an impact, appropriate monitoring and verification efforts must also be made — a capacity which is often lacking in institutions at all levels.

As mentioned earlier, this list is a subset of the 15 principles of climate-adaptive water management institutions identified and discussed in Shifting Course. Please download a free copy of the report at