You’ve just got to keep on showing up

AGWA’s John Matthews talks about influencing global policy, the challenges of water resilience, and the benefits of being fluent in both policy and technical language.

The Resilience Shift interviewed John Matthews, the Executive Director and co-founder of AGWA – the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation. His work blends technical and policy knowledge for climate adaptation and water management, for practical implementation. We asked him about AGWA’s work to influence policy, his advice for others in this field, and his thoughts on the city water resilience framework.

Q: What does infrastructure resilience mean for you and the work of AGWA?
I use the word resilience a lot, but I try not to be pinned down on a definition. It’s one of these words that’s almost infinitely variable. People infer lots of things and it has so much baggage. But I do use the word and I find if anything that I use it more and more. To me, resilience is about how we make adjustments and changes with integrity and that there’s a kind of continuity or core that we’re able to maintain even as we go through really significant shifts.

AGWA focuses on water and resilience, and the biggest challenge that we have is uncertainty – we know so little about how it will change in future.

Infrastructure lasts a long time, decades even centuries, and yet we manage it in a highly quantitative framework using the language of engineering and economics. This need for numbers conflicts with the existence of uncertainty.

The connection between hydrology and ecology is a critical component, and the reason that ecosystems are so challenging is that if we make a mistake, it’s almost certainly an irreversible mistake. Since we know so little about how things will change, and they last even longer than our infrastructure, we must be careful. These ecosystems are, at the same time, responding in creative and dynamic ways to climate change. So although we don’t have a quantitative framework for this, we do have big risks, and a strikingly low tolerance to risk for ecosystems.

Q: You’ve been pushing to get these issues up the policy agenda of global organisations, can you tell me how that’s happened?
AGWA started 9 years ago and although we knew that global policy was important, we weren’t quite sure exactly how to work in that space so we decided to hold off for a few years. Some global policy trends could make it harder to mandate for resilience and we want policy to not interfere, at a minimum. However, global policy is an instrument to help propagate and reinforce a resilient water decision-making processes, and we work a lot in that area now. Since 2014-15, the larger policy environment has become much more welcoming.

70-80% of our work is still technically focused and I am really proud of that work. We use crowdsourcing and peer-to-peer engagement which helps to bring together those who are working on resilience issues and adaptation in isolation.

For policy, we use a similar model, for instance, we use a kind of working paper crowdsourcing with national parties, capturing what they think in very tangible policy-specific ways about how to include water systematically and explicitly in their reporting, and planning processes around irrigation and habitation.

Q: What advice would you have for organisations working in that policy sphere?
My advice is simple. What is the single distinguishing factor between groups that are successful and not. You have to keep showing up. We don’t have any special sauce. You just have to commit to go there next year, to go to the meetings between sessions, to keep talking with people. You need to get inside the head of the people you’re trying to reach. and understand the system and the constraints that they are in, and it really is a question of being physically present.

Q: Where do you see the work of the Resilience Shift as complementary to that of AGWA?
I travel a lot, I’ve seen the impact of climate change directly on physical landscapes as well as on institutions. There is still a big conceptual and operational gap that the Resilience Shift can help with, the problem of transformation. That is still more of a catchphrase than an action and we need to articulate it on two levels. One is what happens when the landscape and the waterscape around you transform. It often happens in a shockingly sudden way, and there are places where that process is already well advanced, and others where we can begin to see the outlines of it moving quite quickly.

The other is that in response, and in anticipation, we need to have institutional transformation. How do institutions learn, anticipate, adjust in order to keep pace or keep ahead of climate change?

Much of what we label as resilience is very reactive – we define a specific threat that often started some time ago and we’re trying to respond to it. That to me is defensive. We need to make a larger change where we think of climate change not just to survive but to thrive. How do we move from coping to hoping? That will require a large intellectual shift even among all those who have been working on resilience for some time, and that is something where the Resilience Shift can play a signal role.

Q: What’s your perception of the City Water Resilience Framework so far?
I’m really excited about the City Water Resilience Framework and Approach. I’ve seen lots of ideas and methodologies fail because there was a perceived owner that tried to control it and brand it and I don’t see that with this approach. I see both a clear need, and a strong sense of audience. It’s very content and audience driven and there is also a very strong sense of cooperation and co-ownership. Once people are exposed to this framework and methodology, they want to start applying it. When I talk to colleagues working directly with cities, if anything, their major source of frustration is that they can’t be cloned, they are not more of them that can help meet the demand. There is a steady stream of new cities that want to get on the list and that’s very affirming and positive and shows the intuitive utility of the approach.

Q: What do you see as the value of your network?
We are a small team, but we have a big global network and I love the way it works. I’ve been to big policy events with the heads of government engineering departments who’ve never been to any such meeting before and heard them stand up and talk in passionate and powerful ways about the importance of resilience and of water to global climate policy. Then one of our close allies in the policy sphere, head of a country delegation, is a civil engineer by training. He’s built dams, he understands intuitively, and from experience, exactly the difficulties that we’re talking about. These people are the ‘translators’ that you get really excited about when you meet them – they are fully fluent in both languages – technical and policy.

Q: You’re a dragonfly biologist – how did you get from pure ecology into driving global policy change?
I also worked in publishing as a book editor for 12 years before I became a biologist, and what drew me into biology was the issues. I felt that I needed a technical orientation to engage in the issues, at the level and the way that I wanted. Climate change was not my first pick. I thought I might work in a more traditional conservation area.

As for my personal epiphany, if you can call it such a thing, I was at a research site in Canada studying dragonfly populations and how it had changed over a 45-year period. I was in the water in my hip waders, and I remember thinking “It’s so complicated for this one insect species, how difficult water and climate must be for human beings. How can you possibly figure that out, the uncertainties, the indirect effects are all so strange?” That was definitely my single moment where I thought “that’s a really interesting programme to work on”.


John co-founded AGWA in 2010 as a U.S.-based NGO working towards water resources adaption to climate change. As of 2019, more than 200 organisations are members of the AGWA network. Two key areas for engagement are AGWA’s climate-water policy work, and the synthesis of interdisciplinary knowledge and insight into resilient decision-making processes for water management through AGWA’s technical programs.

With thanks to John Matthews.

You can find out more about AGWA at https://alliance4water.org/ Their site is both an introduction and a resource around climate change adaptation and water.

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