The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Renewed Funding from Rockefeller Foundation Supports Brown’s Research and Analysis of Freshwater Resilience Around the Globe

Casey Brown

Casey Brown

The overarching objective of Professor Casey Brown’s research is simple, far-reaching, and game-changing: managing freshwater systems sustainably around the world. To that end the Rockefeller Foundation recently awarded $500,006 for one year to Brown of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to further support his groundbreaking research and analysis of freshwater resilience. This renewed funding brings the Rockefeller Foundation’s support of Dr. Brown and his Hydrosystems Research Group to a total of $1.6 million over the past four years.

Brown’s landmark work, conducted in collaboration with the World Bank, is bringing specific improvements to water management in Mexico City and the country of Tanzania, the two pilot demonstrations. But it also has worldwide implications because Brown’s methodology can be applied across the globe.

The purpose of Brown’s effort is to provide world-class technical expertise in support of the joint Rockefeller Foundation-World Bank freshwater resilience partnership, which promotes, demonstrates, and communicates the principles of freshwater resilience and thus improves scientific understanding of human-hydrologic systems so they can be managed sustainably.

As the Rockefeller Foundations has stated, “Freshwater resilience means that freshwater ecosystems can handle changes, particularly climate, and still continue to deliver their essential services. This is the fundamental principle of resilience: being able to respond and adapt to shocks and stresses and to transform when conditions require it.”        

As a result of the Rockefeller Foundation’s support over the last four years, Brown and his Hydrosystems Research Group have developed and demonstrated innovative tools for increasing the resilience of water supply systems and their dependent constituencies, including freshwater ecosystems, agriculture, and energy producers. 

Around the world, river basins are locked into human practices that foster negative patterns of water use which are incongruent with society’s water needs and contrary to its best long-term interests. The results leave these basins and the populations that depend on them fragile to short term shocks and drained of long-term resilience.

“In a balanced basin water is allocated to where it is needed to best serve society,” as Brown concludes. Allocation, in this case, means the process by which the available water resources are assigned among competing users. 

Hence, the Hydrosystems Research Group is currently engaged in ongoing projects partnering closely with the World Bank to improve water supply reliability to Mexico and Tanzania in three river basins with varying sectoral water demands. The research being done here will identify and prioritize bankable investments to improve the robustness and resilience of water resources in each area.

As Brown explains, “The findings of this research will provide insight for planning and adapting the design and operation of water resource systems for a future of change.”

Brown adds that “Our research approach is broadly characterized as systems analysis, employing a systems framework informed by hydroclimate science with a primary application to human-hydrologic systems.”

Brown says that “Since societal need is dynamic, allocation responds to both trends in the demand for water and variability and change in supplies provided by nature.”

Brown also notes that, because the choices of individuals can overlook shared cumulative impacts, a balanced basin has protections for less visible long-term interests, such as maintaining buffers that groundwater and nature provide, and maintaining equitable societies with protections for the disadvantaged. 

“A progressive allocation scheme and its associated protections serve as a wellspring of freshwater resilience,” says Brown.

Brown goes on to say that a resilient river is one in which communities within a basin have options and use them to manage change, both sudden and gradual, while not undermining the long-term ability of the basin to thrive. The Rockefeller Foundation freshwater team has identified freshwater allocation as a key mechanism for providing this capacity. 

“In most parts of the world, there are few formal rules or processes in place and the consequences in times of scarcity are systematically harmful to the environment and often poor and vulnerable communities as well,” explains Brown. “However, in some places progressive water allocation policies have been established, and lessons learned provide a pathway to building resilience in rivers around the world.”

Brown’s research is attempting to spread these “progressive water allocation” efforts everywhere. In addition, the tools and operational guidelines that Brown’s work is developing will influence World Bank water investment design in all their operations, potentially improving water management globally. The World Bank’s position of dominant influence in the water infrastructure policy internationally ensures wide scaling of these approaches. 

As Brown says, “Given the grand challenge that water management faces, especially under climate change, and its high profile concern among global business interests, governments, and thought leaders, this kind of progress is sorely needed.”

In addition to the Rockefeller Foundation and World Bank, Brown’s work is also funded by the National Science Foundation, NOAA, the Department of Defense, and the US Army Corps of Engineers. (July 2018)