Building Resilience for Uncertain Water Futures
Building resilience involves the capacity to look ahead, ask “what if” questions about the future,
remain flexible in the face of uncertainty, and seek out policies that provide good outcomes no
matter what the future climate brings in terms of climate and water impacts. Water resource
planning in Phoenix requires an eye to the impacts of climate change on this desert metropolis of
almost 5 million residents, the policy choices available to decision makers to mitigate risk, and
future landscaping preferences, conservation behaviors, and beliefs about economic efficiency,
social equity, and environmental protection. Water resources management in Phoenix and
elsewhere is increasingly a Decision Making under Uncertainty (DMUU) problem where the
relevant question changes from how to optimize and predict the future to what kind of future we
want and what policy choices are required to get there. There are no ideal solutions for DMUU
problems, but rather strategies for handling uncertainty, complexity, and political conflict.
DMUU looks for robust solutions that work well regardless of future climate and hydrological
The Decision Center for a Desert City at ASU built a systems model (WaterSim) to explore
alternative climate, water, and urban development futures for the Phoenix area. The model
evolved over 15 years to reveal critical trade-offs, foster public discussion about long-term water
management, and promote social learning between water stakeholders and water scientists.
Lessons learned include the importance of shifting the policy discussion from climate to human
management, the value of exploratory models for DMUU, the benefits of models as boundary
objects between scientists and decision makers, and the view of modeling as an iterative process
involving scientists and decision makers.
Dr. Patricia Gober is also author of Building Resilience to Uncertain Water Futures, published by Palgrave Macmillan, which is a useful resource for students and academics seeking a better understanding of sustainable water use, water policy and water resources management.