Dealing with the issue of adaptive delta management (ADM) in the Dutch Delta Programme on a regular basis, I am very pleased with this special issue of Journal of Water and Climate Change. Many of the researchers active over the last years in the frontline of this rapidly developing field are represented in the seven papers of this issue. The papers, ranging from technical analysis to reflections on governance aspects, prove the practical value of the ADM approach, point out possible limitations and offer suggestions for further improvements.
ADM follows an adaptive and integrated approach. ‘Adaptive’ refers to the quality of being able to speed up or temporize the implementation of measures or to switch to an altogether different strategy; ‘delta’ refers to a dynamic water-rich region, often characterized by high population densities and large economic values, where developments are highly connected, therefore requiring an integrated approach.
ADM was developed and used in the Dutch Delta Programme for strategy development. It combines concepts like scenarios, integrated water resource management, adaptation tipping points (ATPs) and adaptation pathways. ADM was the answer to one of the major challenges in the preparatory phase (2009) of the Dutch Delta Programme (Delta Programme Commissioner 2010): use the momentum generated by the advice of the Second Delta Commission (Deltacommissie 2008) to involve all parties in stepping up efforts in the domains of water safety, freshwater supply and spatial adaptation – in spite of the financial crisis, which was developing, later further complicated when ‘climate gate’ became a political issue. A method was needed for dealing with uncertainties in long-term investments that would reduce chances of both under- and overspending. The goal was to prevent the paralyzing effects of large uncertainties and politicized debates, and mobilize political powers and financial reserves for measures that will make the Netherlands stay ahead of disasters.
After 5 years, in September 2014, the resulting report ‘Delta Programme 2015’ (Delta Programme Commissioner 2014) was presented to parliament, including major policy decisions and preferred regional strategies. The necessary budget of €16 billion until 2028 has been allocated. The strategies were developed using the ADM approach. A citation from ‘Delta Programme 2015’ (Delta Programme Commissioner 2014):
‘The new approach centers around ‘adaptive delta management’: looking at tasking ahead of us, using that insight to put in place (cost-)effective measures in good time and remaining flexible to be able to act on new opportunities, insights and circumstances. Alternative measures are available should they be necessary in the future. That is also part of the adaptive approach to work: being practical, alert and prepared. Adaptive delta management has been embraced by all of the government authorities, social parties, knowledge institutes and companies as a practical solution for dealing with developments, the direction of which is clear to us, but the rate of which is not.’
The proposed decisions and strategies now being accepted, the Dutch Delta Programme has entered a new phase: the phase of elaboration and implementation. Time to look back – what worked and what did not – and also look ahead – what the main challenges are in the coming phase.
Adaptive delta management in the Dutch Delta Programme – lessons learnt
A survey among the organizations working together in the Delta Programme showed that the highest added value of applying ADM was in helping to incorporate long-term tasks in short-term decisions, in increasing awareness of uncertainties, in positioning measures in a time-frame and in developing robust strategies. The elements considered most difficult to apply were the tipping points and connecting the measures in the preferred strategies with investment agendas in other domains.
ADM is not a quantitative modeling method for comparing and selecting strategies. It is a ‘narrative’ combining existing concepts such as adaptation pathways and tipping points. A first lesson learnt is that this narrative can be effective in mobilizing policymakers, politicians and other decision makers around a shared approach for dealing with uncertainties. Applying ADM in the Dutch Delta Programme prevented dead-lock, mobilized parties, and brought consistency in strategy development. It has resulted in flexible preferred strategies, and agreement on long-term options to be kept open, and on the necessary preparatory measures.
A second lesson is that adaptation tipping points did not always offer the hoped-for ‘objective hold’. This was notably so in the field of water safety. Using tipping points in a ‘traditional’ adaptive approach (=oriented on physical processes) pre-supposes physical characteristics whose development can be followed by monitoring certain gradually developing parameters like sea level rise, in order to determine the moment for speeding up or slowing down policy-efforts in a given strategy or for switching to an alternative strategy. But it appeared that for river-discharge (a main concern for the Dutch Delta Programme) the natural variability is so large relative to possible climate induced trends in peak discharges, that even in a high-end climate scenario the earliest date for detecting such a trend in a statistically sound way would be around 2050.
A third lesson is that it is difficult to guarantee that long-term options will be kept open for several decades. One reason is that long-term flexibility for possible future decisions in the domain of water safety often implies a short-term reduction of flexibility in the domain of spatial planning. Areas that could be developed (e.g. for housing projects) are claimed for water safety measures – which may eventually not be necessary. A pilot ‘development oriented spatial reservation’ has started to prevent unnecessary negative trade-offs. Another reason is that benefits of implementing a long-term option ‘evaporate’ if keeping the option open necessitates short-term water safety investments that become superfluous once the long-term option is implemented.
A fourth lesson is that if the short-term task is substantial (as was the case in the Netherlands, with a back-log in the maintenance of river levees), and variable costs are small in comparison to fixed costs, it is more cost-efficient to apply a robustness-surtax on known short-term measures (e.g. raise levees) than to switch to an altogether different strategy like changing the distribution of discharge over river branches. In other words: the present strategy has created a lock-in. Cost-benefit analysis does not favor an alternative strategy. Climate change only slightly influences the outcome.
A fifth and final lesson learnt is that the valorization of the added value of flexibility is complex. Techniques like Real Options Analysis could only be applied in very specific cases where the necessary detailed data could be collected, and where a sound basis existed for estimating probabilities.
Added value of the presented new insights for the Dutch Delta Programme
The seven papers presented in this special issue offer both theoretical insights and practical guidance for policy development and political decision making on crucial issues related to water management and spatial adaptation. For the Dutch Delta Programme an important added value lies in the further elaboration of the preferred strategies in the coming years.
As rightfully addressed by Riquelme-Solar et al. (2015) the technical approach to ATPs can be broadened to include social preferences, stakes and interests. Notably the further elaboration of the Delta Programme's preferred freshwater supply strategies, oriented around agreements on supply-levels, can profit from the notion of adaptation turning points that indicate the moment when ‘a socio-political threshold is reached’, and that emphasize that effective climate adaptation requires coordinated efforts of all parties involved. In addition, Ahmed et al. (2015) show that, apart from hydrological thresholds, factors such as unforeseen urban growth, untimely implementation of planned measures and funding constraints constitute triggers that can lead to policy ATPs. This insight can inform the elaboration – and stress testing – of adaptation strategies.
One of the ambitions of the Delta Programme is to match investments in water safety and freshwater supply with other agendas. Van der Vlist et al. (2015) and Koukoui et al. (2015) show promising possibilities in the replacement of hydraulic structures and urban development respectively.
Another potential use of the newly gained insights concerns the issue of actually implementing the strategies. As shown by Van der Brugge & Roosjen (2015) institutional conditions, such as legislation and responsibilities, and sociocultural conditions like belief systems, economic activities or the state of knowledge enable certain adaptation measures while hampering others. This might be used in the Delta Programme to identify those most important measures that might need extra attention for actually reaching the implementation phase.
Dewulf & Termeer (2015) support widening the scope of ADM, which is already taking place. In the Netherlands the ADM approach is explored outside the Delta Programme, for example in the National Fuel Vision, the Infrastructure Investment Program and the design of the second National Climate Adaptation Strategy. It is also increasingly being considered in delta planning in developing countries. Both developing and developed countries can profit from the paper of Jeuken et al. (2015), which offers good practices (e.g. systematically coupling short-term decisions with long-term options) and barriers (e.g. possible constraints to future choices by structural flood protection measures taken in the past).
Challenges for the future
A monitoring and evaluation scheme supporting the realization of ADM
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. ADM is not just an approach for integrating uncertainty in strategy development; it is a way to manage a delta. The strategies are the start. Decision makers next have to be informed continuously about progress made in order to secure the ‘adaptive-and-integrated’-transition, which started with accepting the proposed plans. An actual challenge is to realize a monitoring and evaluation scheme, which promptly informs policymakers, water managers and politicians about when it is necessary to speed up or temporize the implementation of the chosen strategies, whether additional interventions are needed to keep long-term options open or whether a switch of strategy should be considered.
Clarity and consistency in the use of terms
Most papers have either broadened the scope of an ATP (Riquelme-Solar et al. 2015; van der Brugge & Roosjen 2015), applied the ATP approach in a new way (Ahmed et al. 2015) or modified it (Koukoui et al. 2015), or have shown that a broader set of drivers can lead to an ATP (Ahmed et al. 2015; van der Vlist et al. 2015). This goes to show how useful the ATP concept can be in getting a grip on uncertainty-dominated situations. The flipside is an increased fuzziness of the term. The time seems ripe for a concise guide specifying the different possible uses of the term. Specific attention is needed for the definition and role of ATPs in non-gradual, stochastic processes, where transgression of the ATP might remain unnoticed.
Sharing experiences in a way that respects strong context dependency
Nearly all papers stress the importance of social, cultural and political context (including scale). In addition to ‘technical' parameters like river discharge and sea level, other parameters are to be considered like diversity of stakeholder opinions (Riquelme-Solar et al. 2015), possible conflicts of interest between different levels of administration (van der Vlist et al. 2015), context dependency of the way adaptation strategies are implemented (Jeuken et al. 2015), differences in viewing problems and solutions related to differences in welfare (Ahmed et al. 2015), institutional and socio-cultural structures (van der Brugge & Roosjen 2015) and scale dependency of adaptation strategies (Dewulf & Termeer 2015). How to respect the context dependency of insights and methods, and at the same time prevent a situation where each organization has to find out by itself how to best incorporate uncertainty in decision making? The challenge here is to create a fitting and inspiring researcher-practitioner learning community: a safe environment for exchanging views, failures and successes.
Visualization is key in communication – and in offering expert information to decision-making processes. The underlying information may be complex, yet what the different options are at what time should be clear directly. Current visualizations are often derived from simplified cases, and unfit to represent the heterogeneity of real-life strategies. The design of powerful visualizations for real cases remains a major challenge.
Matching solutions across scales
As noted by Dewulf & Termeer (2015), ‘the mapping of adaptation tipping points and pathways can be done at different spatial scale levels (e.g. different regions, or regional and national), but the interdependencies between levels are not addressed by the method. Different maps of adaptation pathways for different regions may conflict with each other, making it very difficult to add up the different maps into a national plan, for example.’ A challenge lies in developing a methodology for matching maps of adaptation pathways of different scales.
In closing, the ADM approach itself also aims to be adaptive (promoting a continuous alertness to possibilities for further improvements) and integrated (not necessarily limited to a specific policy domain): ‘Walk the talk’. The richness and variety of the papers in this special issue are greatly appreciated. And new efforts from both academia and practice to advance ADM are most welcome.