How to Assess Community Resilience
For the ranching communities on the east side of the Baja California Peninsula, groundwater springs are their main source of fresh water. The economic livelihoods of around 4,000 people, who call themselves Choyeros, are closely tied to springs and wells, which provide water for their families and livestock.
Communities like this, large and small, exist throughout the West, where water is life. Social systems are linked to water supply systems, so water supply challenges are social challenges. To understand how the connection between these systems affects the resilience of community water supplies, researchers from the University of Utah and their colleagues developed a new framework for thinking about the social resilience of water.
Water supply problems can be local or regional, they write, and can happen quickly or slowly. A highly resilient society can react on the same scales of time or space, while a society that cannot be in trouble. The study is published in sustainability science.
What does this resilience framework mean for the Choyeros? Read on – first let’s talk about the framework and the cross-disciplinary collaboration that created it.
Resilience across time and space scales
The story begins in a faculty “think tank” organized by the U’s Center for Global Change and Sustainability (GCSC). Brenda Bowen, GCSC director and professor of geology and geophysics, listened to anthropologist Shane Macfarlan discuss the work he and his colleagues had done with the Choyeros, documenting how and when members of their society discovered plants, animals and other elements of the natural world around them. The research team had, over several years, built a relationship of trust with the Choyeros, as well as an understanding of the community and the issues it faces.
Bowen made the connection between the spring-fed society of the Choyeros and the work that U-graduate Jory Lerback, now at UCLA, had done on spring geology and hydrology.
“The community lives in close proximity to water, land, and the ecosystem,” says Bowen, “and thus presented a unique opportunity to explore the connections between people, water, and place.”
Inspired, Bowen, Lerback and Macfarlan assembled an interdisciplinary research team, with the help of seed funding from GCSC, the U’s Society, Water & Climate group of teachers, and the NEXUS Institutean interdisciplinary research group in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. The team also included Eric Schniter from California State University Fullerton, Juan Jose Garcia from Salt Lake Community College and Liliana Caughman from Arizona State University.
But the team of social and physical scientists needed to find a common language to talk about hydrological and social systems.
“We needed a way to step back from the siled disciplines of the ivory tower and think more about common goals,” says Lerback.
Looking at the available data and the research questions they wanted to ask, the team focused on the themes of space and time. You’ll see this in the framework outlines below. Both systems – social and hydrological – have dimensions of space (on the horizontal axis) and time (on the vertical axis).
Let’s take a few examples to illustrate this framework. It may be a suburb of a large metropolitan area that is experiencing short-term contamination of its water supply. The timescale of the problem is relatively short, perhaps a few days, and limited in space, on the order of a few square miles (tens of square kilometers). In the hydrological framework, you can represent this vulnerability by a small square in the lower left corner.
The human response could also be limited in time and space, and could include using social channels to communicate a boil order to affected neighborhoods or trucking clean water to a central location. In the context of human behavior, the answer would also be a small square in the lower left corner. The squares overlap. The community is resilient.
But what happens when these squares do not overlap? For example, if the hydrological challenge is on the scale of regional or even global climate change? Trucking in water for a few days won’t be enough.
“When human and ‘non-human’ or aquatic systems operate on vastly different spatial and/or temporal scales, there is an opportunity to develop policy precisely to bridge these gaps,” says Bowen. Another example, if climate change is a global issue and policies to halt climate change are local, then perhaps coordination between local communities can expand the scale of human response to match the magnitude of the problem.
“We hope this is a way to see how the ideas fit together and represent a top-notch approach to defining mutual goals,” Macfarlan said. “We see this framework as a tool to generate conversations across many groups and less as a prescriptive political tool.”
The resilience of the Choyeros
Back to the Choyeros, with their small community and their only water point. This community, Macfarlan says, removes some of the confounding factors that might arise in a study of, say, the Salt Lake Valley.
“While working in a small community (about 115 people) means we have less data overall, it does mean we have a deeper insight into each data point (which are real people we know well) and a more great ability to interpret our results by communicating directly with the people participating in this study.
“In a small area,” adds Lerback, “water movement is more visible and not ‘abstracted’ by infrastructure like in many cities, where measurements of water use are generally more available but probably less significant.
The team therefore began to assess the scales of social and hydrological resilience. They asked the Choyeros about their experiences and knowledge about the spring (Have you ever seen a spring dry up in your life? What makes springs exist?) as well as their social systems (When livestock disappears or you want to sell handicrafts, who do you ask for help?).
Only one of the people on the 31 ranches interviewed had heard a second-hand story about the spring drying up. But 26 expressed concern that it could one day happen. Water was shared between ranches, they found, with sharing occurring more often between ranches close to each other or sharing labor with each other.
At the same time, the researchers measured the amounts of carbon-14 and tritium isotopes in the water to gauge the residence time of the water, or how long it had spent underground before returning to the surface. . This would give an idea of how quickly weather conditions could affect spring – and how long it would take to recover.
The water ages they found ranged from about 75 years to 230 years. This suggests that, at least to some extent, changes in precipitation amounts could lead to changes in spring production over human lifetimes.
So how might their water future change? If the increased demand for well water lowers the water table, the springs could reduce their production. On similar timescales, herders can share water and build water infrastructure to distribute throughout the community. These squares, according to the resilience framework, overlap.
But climate change and changes in land use could cause the amounts of water entering the soil to decrease, a process that occurs on the scale of tens to hundreds of years and occurs over larger surfaces. Current social systems may not be able to respond. The squares overlap slightly.
How is this framework useful in planning for the future? If the Choyeros decide to improve their resilience, then they can consider this framework as a starting point. Perhaps they would like to geographically expand their water sharing network or put in place measures to ensure long-term water storage.
The study sheds light on a cultural group that has received little attention in Mexico, Macfarlan says, “but connects them to hydrological processes that are relevant to many parts of the world, including the arid southwestern United States. “.
The framework is relatively simple, Lerback says, compared to water use models that might otherwise be used to assess resilience. “These are data-intensive, time-consuming to build and test,” she says, “and are often presented as a ‘black box’ rather where the methods are a bit opaque, where you can test scenarios and see the expected results, but required a lot of trust with the developers.
Lessons for the Salt Lake Valley
Although an analysis of the resilience of the Salt Lake Valley is not part of this study, the authors argue that the framework that applied to the small community of Choyero can also be applied to the bustling front of Wasatch.
“As we need more water resources,” says Bowen, “we need to expand our reach either spatially, such as moving water from rivers for municipal use, or temporally, such as capturing seasonal water resources in reservoirs to extend the period of availability, or the exploitation of groundwater that has recharged thousands of years ago.
The team looks forward to seeing how this interdisciplinary framework can apply to other areas, including food production and waste management. The experience, they say, was beneficial for everyone involved.
“It’s a way for academics to have a bit of humility,” says Macfarlan. “There needs to be a way to communicate and understand things intuitively, it will help build trusting relationships and believing in numbers.”
See the full study here.