Imagine a world just six years from now, when water governance is weak and there are no laws to manage water in a drying climate. Government provides scant support for cooperation to manage surface and groundwater, as population and demand for water grow. By 2030, deforestation reduces the amount of water the soil can retain, cutting crop yields. By 2040, water demand exceeds supply, spurred by irrigation needs and a fast-growing population. Higher temperatures and longer droughts mean the loss of basic grains. The global weather patterns El Niño and La Niña may affect food security, and poverty increases.

This grim picture is the most pessimistic of three scenarios developed at a WRI workshop in Trifinio, Guatemala, on September 25-26, 2014. Intelligently imagining the future in this way can motivate decision makers to make more water available for agriculture and human consumption, possibly by promoting alternative, less-thirsty businesses like tourism and handicraft-making. They may also improve agroforestry systems and soil conservation to conserve water on farms. Small farmers might decide to harvest rainwater and switch technology to use water more efficiently and productively. In this scenario, however, the challenge of increasing access to water remains.

The Importance of Scenarios and Decision Making

Scenarios are descriptions of plausible futures that reflect different perspectives on past, present and future developments. They are not predictions, projections or forecasts but provide contexts in which decision makers can make plans. Scenarios enable decision makers to work with a variety of plausible futures.

One key challenge is addressing uncertainty, especially when we don’t know the exact impact of climatic change in a particular location due to unpredictable weather patterns. Developing scenarios that take climate and other socio-economic uncertainties into account can help to directly tackle issues we are less sure of. It allows decision makers to take various uncertainties into consideration in the planning process.

Developing Scenarios on Climate Change and Water

To help decision makers develop scenarios and plans to manage water and adapt to climate change, Moushumi Chaudhury of WRI’s Vulnerability and Adaptation team, and Tien Shiao and Paul Reig of WRI’s Aqueduct team, conducted the workshop in Trifinio, part of the Central American Dryland Corridor, an area where biodiversity is protected by reducing fragmentation between ecosystems, enabling animals to migrate freely. The Corridor also has areas for agriculture and forest management.

The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, and the University for International Cooperation worked with WRI to organize the workshop. The workshop was held in Trifinio because decision makers want to better manage the area’s watersheds. As the area has become drier, decision makers have become concerned about the impact of droughts on livelihoods, especially in one of the poorest parts of Guatemala. Water is a contentious issue among sugar producers, smallholder farmers, and governments that want to install dams to generate hydroelectricity. All of these stakeholders demand water. Representatives from ministries of environment and agriculture, coffee companies, groups of municipalities, research institutes, and development organizations participated in the workshop.

The two-day workshop taught techniques to develop scenarios and plans. Three groups developed three scenarios—optimistic, moderate, and pessimistic—by integrating Aqueduct maps, crop data, and enabling factors and barriers to water management. Then participants used a technique called “back-casting,” where plans in each scenario are plotted on a timeline starting from 2040 and ending in 2020. This allowed participants to make long and short-term plans. This is important for climate change adaptation, and reducing bias to only plan for the near future. The groups then reviewed the plans to test their strength under different scenarios. Those plans that worked under all scenarios are stronger and are referred to as “robust”. Robust plans withstand various uncertainties in the scenarios, and therefore, can be applicable in various decision making contexts

In addition to the pessimistic scenario, participants created optimistic and middle-of-the-road scenarios. The middle-of-the-road scenario imagined increased social conflicts by 2040 due to water scarcity, driven by population growth, poor resource management and climate change. In turn, water scarcity led to low crop yields, high food insecurity, and a migration to cities. To counteract this, decision makers promoted conservation and sustainable agriculture. This view envisioned improved participatory decision-making and partnerships to address water scarcity.

The optimistic scenario saw an exemplary economy with well-established coffee cultivation contributing to sustainable social and economic development, adopting unique, integrated approaches to support the local economy through eco-tourism and sustainable agriculture. In this scenario, farmers grow basic grains under adequate land management and natural resources governance practices. However, social concerns and some poverty persist due to the loss of per capita agricultural land, particularly amongst bean and corn growers, requiring plans to reduce social problems and poverty.

The Road Forward

The scenarios and plans decision makers choose for adaptation and water management will ultimately depend on various factors, such as political feasibility, costs of implementation, and social acceptance of the plan. Whatever the outcome, scenarios provide decision makers a clearer idea of the impact their plans could have, years or even decades in the future.