Water Resilient Communities and Catchments

IWC works to support professionals and organisations to guide and build pathways of change that enable resilience to various water-induced natural and social pressures, such as floods and catchment activities. Given the connectivity of water across different populations, we work with both urban and regional communities and the catchments in which communities are embedded.

The mix of policy, strategy, implementation and engagement steps for building this resilience entails the weaving together of several elements, including catchment to community water security planning and water stewardship policy and behaviours. It also requires understanding the risks from extreme water and extended weather stress, such as drought, floods and enduring heat waves. These rapidly changing conditions have implications on how urban planning, development and catchment management systems are needed to prepare and respond.

IWC supports the development of water resilient communities and catchments through formal education programs, applied and practical projects, and facilitating peer-to-peer capacity development through communities of practice (e.g.  for professionals

  • Water sensitive cities
  • Flood and drought adaptation resilience building
  • Catchment protection and restoration
  • Community behaviours that underpin a resilient water stewardship
  • Vulnerability and adaptive capacity assessments
  • Monitoring and evaluation leading to key reports cards or major regional assessment frameworks such as the Asian Water Development Outlook

Of particular note are the communities of practice that IWC leads, such as Flood Community of Practice, Queensland Water Modelling Network and the IWC Alumni Network

What do we mean by resilience?

Resilience can be thought of as the ability to recover and to continue to function following some form of disturbance. We are all familiar with the idea that individuals can be resilient, that despite adverse conditions and surprise events, people can pick themselves up and continue on, sometimes after having adapted themselves in some way. But what does this mean in general terms and how does it apply to communities?

Early views on resilience

The idea of resilience stems from work on ecology and ecosystems across the 20th century, where it was repeatedly observed that plant and animal communities would recover to their original state following some form of external disturbance, such as wildfire or grazing. Gradually, the plants and animals that formed the community would reassemble over time and the same mix and structure of species would re-establish itself. In some way, the kind of ecological community present before the disturbance was resilient, and able to reform and recover.

What was also observed was that if too great a disturbance or too frequent a series of disturbances occurred, then sometimes those ecological communities would not recover. They would remain more or less permanently altered, often in some form of degraded state.

These early observations formed the idea that a system – in this case the ecological community – could be resilient and recover its structure and functions within certain limits of environmental disturbance.

Applying the concept of resilience today

This concept of resilience is now used to think about, plan and manage a much broader range of systems, including social, economic and ecological processes and the links between them. If we can somehow focus on enhancing the properties of these systems and processes that create their resilience, then we have a way of helping to ensure that those systems remain sustainable over time.

How do resilience and sustainability relate?

Sustainability is a useful boundary object – a term that is understood well enough to allow people to engage with each other meaningfully in discussing how to achieve it. From a systems perspective, one interpretation of sustainability is that the functions of a system can be maintained into the future, that those functions will not deteriorate or collapse because of the internally driven dynamics of that system or because of any external or environmental disturbances.

Resilient communities

Communities, either rural and relatively small, or urban and relatively large, can be thought of as having functions that must be maintained over time. Examples of these functions include water supply, sanitation, health, food provision, energy provision, waste collection and disposal, housing, employment and live-ability.

If any of those functions deteriorate or are lost, the sustainability of the whole community may be threatened. So, sustainability for communities is managing the internal processes that underpin and drive vital functions, and with managing the resilience of those functions to external disturbances. Such disturbances may be short, sharp and sudden (disasters) or longer, more drawn out and gradually increasing (pressures).

Recovering and re-establishing functions

A community’s ability to recover functions following, or in response to a disturbance, is partly about how quickly it can re-establish functions. But it is also about how processes of anticipation and learning are built and maintained, so that functions may be re-established, but not necessarily in the same way. For example, following a long-term drought, the water supply function of a community may be re-established by deploying a more diverse range of water supply systems to be better able to cope with different climatic conditions. Or, following a flood, a community may opt to recover by making room for the river and shifting urban functions away from waterways, instead of installing hard infrastructure to resist flooding. In this way, resilience can be thought of as being a consequence of having the capacity to adapt, which itself is a consequence of being able to learn and act at different scales. It is also about being able to be flexible and change directions or do things in other ways.

Resilience can also be thought about as being concerned with reducing the vulnerability of our community functions to the effects of external changes and disturbances. Diversifying water supply systems and sources is an example of this – a change that will enhance the resilience of a community by reducing the vulnerability of that community’s water supply to changes in the availability of any single water supply source.

What is a catchment?

A catchment area or basin is land that is bounded by natural features, such as hills or mountains from where all run-off water flows to a low point. This low point will be a dam, a location on a river, or the mouth of a river where the water enters a bay or the ocean. Catchment areas vary in size and make-up. Large catchment areas, such as those drained by the Burdekin and Fitzroy Rivers in Australia are bordered by mountain ranges and include major drainage networks of creeks and rivers. Large catchment areas are made up of hundreds of smaller ‘sub-catchment’ areas. These can be bordered by low hills and ridges and drained by only a small creek or gully.


Land use change, flow alterations, urbanisation, population growth and climate change are each negatively effecting the health and productivity of catchments. Stressed catchment systems are increasingly fluctuating between drought and flood, stream flows are altered, recharge of groundwater systems depleted and aquatic habitats threatened.

Degradation of catchments directly impacts on the services that they provide to society, such as safe drinking water, habitats for biodiversity or places for spiritual, cultural and recreational use. The Brisbane Declaration (2007) highlighted evidence of the global dimensions of freshwater ecosystem degradation and its links to human water security. Ten years later, the 2018 Declaration was revisited and highlighted accelerated declines in freshwater biodiversity and continued loss of vital ecosystem goods and services.

The drivers of degradation are diverse and interconnected with beneficial human uses. Water and land use for agriculture, energy and human health, for drinking water and for sanitation and hygiene, each has potential to negatively impact on the health of fresh water ecosystems.

A better way?

The concept of a catchment management or river basin management has gone through several iterations. While embedding the concept on a hydrological unit remains a constant, the patterns of management (from centralised to decentralised) and the varying degrees of participation and balance of social, economic and environmental outcomes is different from country to country and even from region to region. Catchment management is also influenced by internal norms. A current major influence across the world is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, set by the United Nations.

The 2030 Agenda

The 2030 Agenda establishes a framework for an integrated response to development challenges and identifies 169 targets for 17 different but connected development goals. Goal 6 is focused on water quality, quantity and supports the adoption of integrated approach to management of water.

The goals were developed through a collaborative process, where different sectors and groups of society influenced the final set of goals. This has in turn resulted in implementation being driven by sectoral actors. Water actors, for instance, focus on the water goal. Agricultural actors focus on food security goals and so on. Each goal has an established set of indicators, that can re-enforce sectoral approaches. For example, the dedicated food security and human health goals (SDGs 2 and 3 respectively) have no water-related indicators that address this inter-linkage. This complexity highlights the challenges in effective management of catchment for multiple outcomes.

Cutting through the complexity

There are better ways to secure economic benefits without degrading our ecosystems. The concept of a catchment, or river basin, as a management unit is well established, but is often seen to be overly complex or too challenging to demonstrate the benefits and outcome from actions. Our challenge is to work with stakeholders to validate their understanding and to test opportunities for the uptake of better management practices.

We work with communities, governments, users, businesses to generate understanding of water as a scarce and valuable resources that need to be collectively managed for the environment and societal benefits. We challenge current paradigms and approaches, and test assumptions as to who benefits from different management choices.

This starts by embracing the complexity of catchment management, and by building an understanding of the key elements that form, maintain and transform the health and productiveness of a catchment. A systems approach allows for consideration of how these diverse processes and elements need to be considered for adaptive and integrated management.

While this may start with understanding the biophysical processes and the interplay between land, water and ecological elements, it must also include the social, economic, cultural and spiritual uses. It is the interplay between these processes and their management that makes catchment restoration and catchment management so challenging.

Our experience has demonstrated that deliberate collaborative processes lead to the better uptake and implementation of findings. Processes that are developed by engaging multiple users, and that are informed by evidence, guided by principles and build social learning are more likely to withstand change and last over time.