Resilience – Lost in Translation, Found in Exploration

A lot has been said, agreed and done in 2016 towards achieving the new sustainable development agenda, and 2017 offers further opportunity for progress. The next stage of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is, as Angel Gurría, Secretary General of the OECD, has playfully remarked, “implementation, implementation, implementation—although not necessarily in that order”. What exactly will this mean in operational terms for the water sector, to ‘shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path’?

Translating ‘resilience’

States have committed to “implementation” of the SDGs, providing for a systematic follow-up and review at national, regional and global levels; a global indicator framework was agreed in March last year on a set of over 230 indicators but this is yet to be done at regional, national and subnational levels.

The first challenge when addressing global goals through local implementation is understanding the goals.[1] Linguistics doesn’t help much here. The origin of the English word ‘resilience’ is usually attributed to Latin resilīre, meaning to spring back. While French and Spanish have the equivalent word for it—résiliente and resiliente, respectively -such literal translation doesn’t work for other language groups.

Language Term Meaning
Arabic علـى الصمود      (eala alssumud) to withstand
Chinese 御灾害能力       (yù zāihài nénglì) ability to resist disaster
Russian жизнестойкости (zhiznestoykosti) viability
Dutch veerkrachtige spring back
Greek eπανατακτικότητα (epanaktikótita) gain again (ability to return to previous condition)
Japanese 強靭                    (kyo-jin) the state of being tough and supple
Thai ความสามารถในการปรับตัวและฟื้นตัว (kwam samart nai karn prab tua lae fuen tua) ability to recover and adapt


The term ‘resilience’ remains abstract and broad, making it difficult to find an appropriate substitute in other languages. In a practical context, it can be applied to individuals, human habitats, material infrastructure and natural ecosystems subject of various exogenous challenges that require them to be resilient: from disaster risks and climate change-driven extreme events, to economic shocks, or social and political pressures. No surprise then that the term is omnipresent throughout the SDGs’ targets.

Target 1.5 resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations
Target 2.4 resilient agricultural practices
Goal 9 (Target 9.1, 9.a) resilient infrastructure
Goal 11 (Targets 11.b, 11.c) resilient cities and human settlements; resilient buildings
Target 13.1 resilience to climate-related hazards and natural disasters
Target 14.2 resilience of marine and coastal ecosystems


Operationalising ‘resilience’

Translating resilience into operational terms for the provision of water and sanitation services could make the difference between success and failure. The roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders in developing public policy, establishing regulatory frameworks and delivering services should be considered and adapted to respond to specific circumstances and conditions (Article 8 of the Lisbon Charter).

The Lisbon Charter, for example, was forged on the discussions and feedback from the participants to the 1st International Water Regulators Forum from 56 countries. The discussions embraced the ever-dynamic circumstances we face today: climatic variability, changing demographics and economic growth adding uncertainty, increasing risks to water management and how they are addressed based on local circumstances. Although the Charter was originally published in English, its cross-cultural nature has allowed for its subsequent translation by stakeholders into several other languages including Chinese, French, Portuguese and Spanish. Most recently, it was translated into Czech.


The Lisbon Charter in Czech – what is it good for?

The initiative to translate the Charter into Czech was led by IWA member, Dr Frantisek Kozisek,[2] from the National Institute of Public Health in the Czech Republic, with inputs from the Committee of Water Supply and Sewerage Systems of the Ministry of Agriculture. This highlights the need to break out of silos to achieve shared ambitions between the health, agriculture and water sectors. As Dr. Kozisek said at the time, “it’s time to start looking for a shared vision and try to formulate it. Lisbon, as well as the Bonn Charter, then can serve us as useful “terms of reference”.”[3]


Exploring the implications of ‘resilience’

Another way to jump the language barrier is—ironically—through dialogue. Platforms like the International Water Regulators Forum (IWRF) have increasingly become instrumental to better inform global policy and disseminate good practices for a water wise world. The 3rd IWRF gathered water leaders with regulatory functions from over 30 countries to discuss public policy and regulation for resilient water services. At the risk of getting lost in translation, and across regulatory silos in economic, health and environmental regulation, participants discussed resilience through practice.

The Forum framed customer engagement, sustainable investments and sound governance as the elements of a resilient water system. Adequate asset management that takes into account disaster risks, strategic investment for disaster-proof infrastructure, financial planning that can accommodate changes in economic circumstances, and effective implementation of water safety planning, to name a few examples, all contribute to increase sustainability and resilience of water services delivery. However, a lack of financial resources and technical staff often undermines these measures.

Resilience as a guiding principle risks meaning different things to different people, even before we consider linguistics and professional jargon. Translating the concept is no easy task, but exploring its implications through sharing of practices can enrich the concept in a way that enables progress.


In 2017, IWA will continue inspiring action amongst different stakeholders to improve the resilience of our waterways, our water utilities and our cities. Keep up to date with IWA events, including the Cities of the Future Conference, Embrace the Water, in June, where resilience of the cities will be one of the main themes.


[1] See also the blog by Mr Michael Berkowitz, the President of 100 Resilient Cities.

[2] Frantisek Kozisek (M.D., Ph.D.) has been working at the National Institute of Public Health in Prague, Czech Republic, as researcher and consultant in water hygiene since 1990. Health risk assessment and legislation relating to drinking and bathing water are main subjects of his work. He is Czech representative in several committees and expert groups by the European Commission.

[3] Lisabonská charta (Lisbon Charter – in Czech). SOVAK – Časopis oboru vodovodů a kanalizací (SOVAK – The journal of branch of water supply and sewerage), 2016, 25(10): 302-307.