Building Water System Resilience beyond Infrastructure

In Jakarta, public hand washing facilities were provided at strategic locations for commuters as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Photo credit: ADB.

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Create an enabling environment with strong policies, institutions, and financial systems that support solutions that can adapt to changing needs.


Despite achievements in Asia and the Pacific over the last few decades, 1.5 billion people living in rural areas and 600 million in urban areas still lack adequate water supply and sanitation. Of the 49 regional members of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), 27 face serious water constraints on economic development, and 18 are yet to sufficiently protect their inhabitants against water-related disasters.

A webinar organized by ADB in March 2021 explored innovation and opportunities toward achieving resilient water infrastructure and systems in the region.

John Matthews, executive director of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation, introduced the session and stressed that achieving resilience will require shifting beyond static targets or a single vision of a sustainable future and navigating multiple possible futures. In water management decision-making, he remarked that the past is a very poor predictor of the future. Yet, resilience is not always about new approaches. He cited the Dujiangyan irrigation facility in Sichuan province in the People’s Republic of China. Designed in 256 BC, this adaptive ancient system has been able to meet the challenges of a changing climate and shifting needs of users for over 2,000 years.

Strong Flood Risk Management

Geoff Wilson, senior water resources specialist at ADB, talked about the importance of building resilience to floods rather than resisting floods. This involves strengthening infrastructure, financial, social, and environmental capacity to continue providing flood risk management in the face of climate change, population growth, and other challenges. It requires strong institutions to implement resilient land use planning, building codes, community risk management, operation and maintenance, contingency planning, and capacity building. emerging role of disaster risk financing in managing residual risks and building back better following flood events.

Flood risk mitigation is about balancing storage (e.g., floodplains, reservoirs, retention basins) and conveyance (e.g., main channels, floodways, pipes), said Wilson. It is important to “make room for the river” since both storage and conveyance require room. This entails resilience planning to secure the land for them.

Achieving flood resilience requires adaptive and malleable (nonbrittle) solutions. Wilson said a resilient city has systems that can change, evolve, and adopt alternative strategies (in either the short or longer term) in response to changing conditions. These systems tend to favor the decentralization of conventional infrastructure. For example, super storm Sandy in New York has brought into focus the value of decentralized energy systems in urban centers.

An integrated approach to flood risk management is key to enhance governance in the region. Discussant Amit Singh, an ADB consultant, said this is needed to address the challenges faced by countries in the Pacific nations. These include fragmentation of roles and responsibilities of agencies; limited water management legislation; gaps in institutional and technical capacity; data constraints (including flood risk mapping); and gaps in local flood management planning and capacity

Resilient to Drought

Jelle Beekma, senior water resources specialist at ADB, discussed protective irrigation, water harvesting and watershed management, and efficient drainage for salinity control to enhance drought resilience. He talked about the importance of ensuring that solutions are closely aligned with national development priorities. For example, the ADB-supported Viet Nam Water Efficiency Improvement in Drought-Affected Provinces Project provides localized solutions for improved and modernized irrigation. Under the India Madhya Pradesh Irrigation Efficiency Improvement Project, ADB is supporting large-scale application of advanced technology for drought-responsive irrigation management.

Beekma also highlighted the importance of looking beyond the physical infrastructure and putting in place enabling policies to build drought resilience as well as strengthening governance, management, and value chains.

Discussant Medani Jayakody, chief engineer for water resources planning at Sri Lanka’s Department of Irrigation, shared insights from a wide range of drought resilience solutions implemented by the government. These include water resource operation and management systems, water storage, and irrigation modernization, improved agricultural management practices, and water forecasting.

Service Delivery during a Pandemic

Before the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, ADB support for water and wastewater industries focused on enhancing the resilience of infrastructure to climate and weather-related risks, said Hisaka Kimura, advisor at ADB’s Private Sector Operations Department. This involved deploying smart water technologies to:

  • forecast and provide early flood warning to urban areas,
  • improve the efficiency and network extension planning of water supply and wastewater treatment operations,
  • detect network anomalies and quickly react to incidents and leakages, and
  • monitor water quantity, quality, and timing for re-chlorination and automatic flushing, and wastewater epidemiology.

ADB also supported private sector investments that:

  • use climate- and disaster-resilient techniques to mitigate urban flooding caused by excessive rainfall,
  • reuse wastewater as a cost-effective solution to water scarcity, and
  • improve energy efficiency.

Following COVID-19 lockdowns, Kimura said water and wastewater projects continued essential services with some adjustments, such as providing additional support to vulnerable people with free water, operating water kiosks, enhancing staff safety, and increasing quality testing frequency and locations.

He said digital solutions played a crucial role during lockdowns to ensure continuity of services. New opportunities also emerged to upgrade existing water plants to meet higher quality standards and to test new solutions in preparation for the next wave of the pandemic.

Among the lessons learned from the crisis is that resilience plans need to be upgraded to cope with uncertainty, said Kimura. These include planning for supply chain disruptions, unexpected demand fluctuation, a longer lead time for government approvals, changes to end-user billing, and delays in commercial bank approval processes.

Key Takeaways

1. Building resilient water systems goes beyond infrastructure to create an enabling environment. This requires a systems approach that encompasses strong and resilient financial systems, capable institutions, community planning and awareness, comprehensive planning, education, risk information (including risk mapping), and looking across the value chain.

2. Building resilience to floods and other hazards requires adaptive solutions that can respond to the uncertainty associated with changes in the climate, land use, and population. Rather than focusing on one problem, consider multiple future scenarios and design flexible solutions. New approaches, such as Dynamic Adaptive Pathways Planning, show great promise in dealing with increasingly uncertain futures.

3. An integrated approach to flood risk management is key to designing investment projects that can account for current and future risk, and overcome significant barriers faced by developing economies in relation to governance, data, and capacity.

4. Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic provides an important opportunity to enhance the resilience of water systems. Private sector operational flexibility is critical to respond to changes, such as those that were observed during lockdown.


Asian Development Bank. 2021. Towards Resilient Water Systems. Virtual Dialogues on Resilient Infrastructure series (Season 2: Dialogue 2). 24 March.

Jelle Beekma
Senior Water Resources Specialist, Sustainable Development and Climate Change, Department Asian Development Bank

Jelle Beekma has over 30 years of experience in irrigation, drainage, water supply and Sanitation, and transboundary river basin management, and related policy and institutional issues. He has water management experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Middle East, and North and South America.

Hisaka Kimura
Advisor, Private Sector Operations Department, Asian Development Bank

Hisaka Kimura has over 25 years of experience in arranging finance for energy, natural resources, and water and municipal environmental infrastructure projects. Based in Beijing, she oversees the entire project cycle, covering business development, structuring, negotiation, implementation, regulatory monitoring, and knowledge-sharing. She holds master’s degrees in Finance from London Business School and in Environmental Economics from Imperial College, University of London. She completed the Infrastructure in a Market Economy program and Senior Executive Fellows at Harvard Kennedy School.

Geoffrey Wilson
Senior Water Resources Specialist, Agriculture, Food, Nature, and Rural Development Sector Office, Sectors Group, Asian Development Bank

Geoff Wilson contributes to implementing ADB's Strategy 2030 by providing advice on strategic directions, conducting activities on water issues, and producing water knowledge products and publications. He has over 30 years' experience in the consulting engineering market, where he focused on hydraulic and hydrological studies, including sustainable development and climate change. He obtained his master’s in Civil Engineering from Canterbury University, NZ and continued toward a master’s in HydroInformatics from UNESCO IHE in Delft, The Netherlands.

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Asian Development Bank (ADB)

The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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