AWRA Water Blog

A Paradigm Shift: From Sustainability to Resilience

Viewed through the lens of water resources, sustainability has resulted in living within – not overusing – our natural resources means and allowing them to regenerate and remain available for use by future generations.



Rafael Frias, III
2017 AWRA President

Over the past 30 years, there has been a growing focus on sustainable development. “Our Common Future,”(PDF) a 1987 report, also known as the “Brundtland Report,” from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The report represented an effort toward sustainability that centered on the three main pillars of development: economic growth, environmental protection and social equality. Over the years, this has become known as the “triple bottom line” of sustainability.

Viewed through the lens of water resources, sustainability has resulted in living within – not overusing – our natural resources means and allowing them to regenerate and remain available for use by future generations. The water resources community has widely accepted this practice of sustainability, and, within our broad perspective of the water cycle, it has taken the shape of allowing for sustainable water supplies for current and future generations. A perceived outcome of this practice by water resource managers has been the call to develop a portfolio of diversified water supply sources. This helps to achieve a balance in the use of sources (e.g. fresh or brackish groundwater, fresh surface water, seawater and reclaimed water, among others) and ensure that no source is overused or depleted.

The focus on sustainability has not only been related to the anthropogenic use of water, but also to the need for environmental protection and restoration by ensuring that the right amount of water supply or ecological flows is available to sustain environmental systems within our water resources. All things considered, this water resources stewardship seeks to find a balance between society (the users of our water resources), the environment supported by our water resources, and the financial benefits that may be realized by society.

While living within our natural resources means may be an efficient way to provide future generations with access to the water resources we currently enjoy, it may not be as effective if we desire to properly manage future challenges that may impact our way of life within the water cycle. These challenges include climate change and its effects, such as sea-level rise, flooding, water scarcity or droughts, and water quality degradation among others. These adverse effects may occur as sporadic emergencies, posing significant risk to our societies if water resources are not resilient with capacity to absorb these shocks.

This is where a paradigm shift is required from sustainability, or living within our means, to resilience, being able to overcome the unexpected. This transition was well-presented by Jamais Cascio in his 2009 article for Foreign Policy, “The Next Big Thing: Resilience.” Resilience may be broadly defined as a system’s capacity to absorb or manage adverse situations. This concept has a comprehensive application to the natural systems managed by water resource professionals. To properly plan, manage risks and ensure that the additional capacity required to attenuate future adverse effects is available, water resource professionals will need to consider future challenges. Decisions should not only consider living within our means. They should also ensure we don’t perform with an “abundance” mindset and provide the right additional system capacities required to manage unexpected challenges.

This quest for resilience could pose the question: How much is enough? The answer to this question doesn’t come easy. It will require monetary considerations to ensure the right additional capacity is provided while not breaking the bank. The ultimate solution will be a function of understanding the risks posed to our water resources to make appropriate decisions that allow us to have the adequate capacity to manage future challenges in a cost-effective manner.

Achieving the right balance between sustainability and resilience will be paramount for water resource managers. To allow future generations’ access to natural resources, they must manage the future. That is, they must manage for future adverse effects, which not only could impact the short term but also limit resource availability in the long term.

AWRA will be there for the water resources community to facilitate the management of these future challenges by fostering collaboration and dialogue among our peers in support of our goal to provide Community, Conversations and Connections. As part of our commitment to a multi-disciplinary approach to water resources management, we will be convening our 2017 Summer Specialty Conference on Climate Change Solutions: Collaborative Science, Policy and Management for Sustainable Water Management in Washington, DC, to be held June 25-28. The conference will focus on how to respond to climate change and manage uncertainty through adaptation. Come and be part of the dialogue that will take place this summer as we work toward the paradigm shift from sustainability to resilience and finding the right balance that will allow us to be stewards of our most precious resource: water.

If you’re interested in being part of shaping the future of water resources through the proper management of these challenges, I encourage you to participate in AWRA’s Future Risks Committee, which focuses on the areas of climate change, water/energy nexus and extreme events.

More information on our conferences and technical committees can be found on our website.

I look forward to seeing you at our Summer Specialty Conference this June in Washington, DC. In the meantime, please be part of our Community, Conversation and Connections by following us on Twitter (@AWRAHQ and @RafaFriasIII) to stay abreast of our efforts. See you in DC!

Rafael E. Frias III can be reached at

This column was originally published in the May issue of Water Resources IMPACT, bi-monthly magazine of AWRA.

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