Water flows. Water is dynamic. Water is complex.
Water is not subject.
Rivers will flood.
Rain will fall . . . or it won’t. Words flow. Words matter.
Headlines demand solutions to flooding or drought.
There are no technical solutions. There are no political solutions. There are no economic solutions.
There is no singular solution. There is no complex solution.
There are many options.
There are multiple approaches. There are ways to adapt.
There can be resilience.
Water flows. The word flow evokes motion which suggests change. Water, from molecular to global scales, is in constant motion and despite centuries of study we still don’t fully comprehend how and why water behaves as it does. As Wendell Berry (2000, 37) once wrote about a river, “One must simplify it in order to speak of it. One probably simplifies it in some way in order to look at it.”
Water and the human relationship with water are complex. The history of human development is also the history of harnessing water (Solomon 2010; Fagan 2011). Humans have, out of necessity, always managed water. We have always tried to adjust flows to meet our needs and desires. On short, temporal, and spatial scales we sometimes succeed. We can temporarily retain water to grow our crops or fill our cups. We can, at small scales, divert water to avoid floods or harness energy. All efforts to capture, hold, divert water, however, have unintended consequences. A dam, for example, can provide water to fields and faucets and can reduce flooding impacts. At the same time, it creates a false sense of security for those who build behind it, leading to more damage when it eventually fails. And this is the point. No attempt to manage or control water will permanently “solve” any water-related challenge. Observers have long recognized that managing water is an always and forever task. In 1884, Colonel William Ludlow, Chief Engineer for the Philadelphia Water Department, wrote:
Sooner or later all cities are brought face to face with the water problem, and even when it has been thought that a solution has been reached, the development of industries and the growth of population out-run the provision which it was believed would suffice for long periods, and call for constant watchfulness and care to meet the growing demands (453).
Yet the rhetoric about water continues to insist permanent solutions are possible.
Words matter. Words can create nations. The US was quite literally “declared” into being. The word solution evokes an end point, a finality. The simplistic notion that mere humans could solve any challenge that water can put forth is folly. Berry (2000, 37) again: “[The river] is serenely and silently not subject—to us or to anything else except the other natural forces that are also beyond our control.” Any rhetoric promising solutions to complex systems is creating false expectations.
What were perceived “solutions” in previous generations are now perceived “problems.” Damming, straightening, culverting, and generally using waterways have well served human society. However, these “solutions” to flooding, drought, thirst, transportation also radically altered ecosystems, which has subsequently generated a multi-billion-dollar industry in “restoration,” as if we can re-turn to some previous condition—which, remember, was itself perceived as problematic. This problem-solution-problem cycle is well understood. Water scholars Charles Vorosmarty and Claudia Pahl-Wostl (2013) reflect:
It is ironic that many of today’s water problems arise from the very solutions we administer. Proliferation of costly, so-called hard-path engineering, like centralized sewers and large dams, provide undeniable benefits, such as improved hygiene and stable water supply. But they also degrade waters with pollution, obliterate natural flow cycles and block the migration routes of fish and other aquatic life.
Given the uncertain conditions under which humans have always managed water, any approach to sustainable water management must resist the idea that water challenges can be solved and should change language use accordingly. As policy expert Deborah Stone (2001) well articulates, couching decisions in terms of solutions sets decision makers up to fail and increases tension.
She writes that the idea of “policy solutions” is misleading and rather, policy actions are “. . . ongoing strategies for structuring relationships and coordinating behavior to achieve collective purposes" (259, emphasis original). Decades earlier, political scientist Aaron Wildavsky (1979, 5) wrote, “Instead of thinking of permanent solutions we should think of permanent problems in the sense that one problem always succeeds and replaces another.”
Yet the language of solutions persists in news headlines, policy documents, professional conference titles, and academic articles.
Wouldn’t it be fabulous if there were a forever solution? Imagine, no more worry about irrigation supplies or never cleaning flood debris from another basement. But that is a fantasy.
Attempts to promote effective, long-term water management will be better served by acknowledging that water-related challenges will not be solved, but rather will require constant diligence.
While solving is not possible, resilience is. Resilience requires acceptance. Resilience means letting go of unrealistic expectations. Resilience recognizes that water is not subject and that while we need water, it does not need us. There is no end point for managing water. There is no finality to this process. Humans have always and will always need to pay attention to water to ensure we can meet our needs. Let’s embrace the complexity of water by refusing to simplify our expectations or our language.
Berry, Wendell. 2000. “River Rising.” In The Gift of Rivers: True Stories of Life on the Water, edited by Pamela Michael, 31–37. Palo Alto, CA: Travelers’ Tales.
Fagan, Brian. 2011. A History of Water and Humankind. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Ludlow, Colonel William. 1884. “Surveys for Future Water Supply.” Journal of the Franklin Institute 117 (6): 453–459.
Solomon, Steven. 2010. Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization. New York: Harper Perennial.
Stone, Deborah. 2001. Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. New York: W. W. Norton.
Vorosmarty, Charles J., and Claudia Pahl-Wostl. 2013. “Delivering Water from Disaster.” The New York Times, June 10.
Wildavsky, Aaron. 1979. Speaking Truth to Power: The Art and Craft of Policy Analysis. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.