Backcasting for transformative water management

Date 24 Oct, 2023

Climate change spells the end for the type of water management that made the Netherlands world-famous. That is one of the cornerstones of Tom van der Voorn’s dissertation. The rise in weather and climate extremes forces us to switch from reactive, adaptive water management to transformative, future-oriented approach.


Climate change affects water management in multiple ways. In the past two decades, adaptive water management has become the main response in water management to the impact of climate change effected by making minor alterations in order to build the resilience of people and nature.

However, climate change has laid bare the limitations of adaptive water management which is aimed at reducing the impact of climate change through resilience-building and minor alterations. This responsive approach, which is based on incremental-based adaptation, has proved to be insufficient or counterproductive in the face of more extreme weather events. Due to the increasing complexity of water systems, which are not only self-organizing complex adaptive systems, but also unpredictable and non-linear in their response to intervention and climate change, all of which poses uncertainties regarding their management, a shift is taking place in the dominant notions behind water management.

Water management and its strategies need to move beyond incrementalism – to become more transformative – and in order to maintain people’s well-being in the long run in the face of the expected impacts of climate change.

It is against this backdrop that this research on backcasting for climate adaptation can help to contribute to a better understanding of the potential of backcasting for adaptation and how it could be applied in water management. Backcasting can be defined as something that generates ideas for a desirable future, before looking backwards from that future to the present in order to strategize and plan how that could be achieved.

Due to its normative, reflexive and iterative nature, backcasting can support water managers in seeking opportunities to invest in long-term solutions that effectively reduce climate change risks while furthermore developing their own climate adaptation strategy amid uncertainty. It also allows them to envision climate adaptation futures and robust adaptation pathways that could lead to such futures.

Tom van der Voorn

This research received funding from the European Commission under grant agreement 511179 – NEWATER

Download the publication
Click here to download the full handbook