Crafting Water “Solutions”: A Complex Process

Colorado Flooding” “Africa’s Worst Drought” “Water Wars” “Diseases Feared from Polluted Water” “Water Mismanagement.” This is merely a small selection of the host of water-related issues reported around the world on any given day. As varied as these problems are, so too are the possible responses. In water, there is no single and simple solution.

Taking urban water supply shortages as a general example, solutions could range from small-scale, low tech, decentralized solutions such as the installation of household rainwater harvesting tanks to large, expensive, centralized and technologically advanced systems such as desalination or wastewater recycling plants. Additional storage reservoirs could be constructed, or water could be imported from surrounding river basins. Looking beyond infrastructural solutions, local governments could initiate widespread awareness and education campaigns to reduce household water use, or subsidize low-flow plumbing installations. An economic solution could see the establishment of a water market, enabling water trading between different users within the area. Any one of these solutions, or a combination of them, could realistically help close the gap between water demand and water supply; however, the success of all of these solutions depends on a wide variety of complex and inter-related external factors.

Water is ubiquitous in most, if not all, of our societal needs and activities. This means that effective solutions to water-related problems must take into account far-reaching factors which at first glance may seem to have little to do with the original water-centric problem. A well-structured choice of solution needs to balance considerations such as the social implications associated with resettlement if a new reservoir is constructed; the ecological concerns of releasing brine from desalination; the human psychological response to knowing that you are drinking recycled wastewater (the “yuck” factor); or the impacts on farming output and food security if a water market enables the transfer of water from irrigation to urban users. As water feeds into so many sectors of our society, water solutions should ideally be sensitive to the possible side-effects that will be transmitted down the water chain.

Not only do responses to water problems have a wide web of secondary impacts, there is a “temporal ripple effect” that often occurs. For example, during the 18th and 19th centuries, river managers responsible for the lower Mississippi River were looking to address recurring devastating floods. At the time, the chosen solution included a comprehensive network of levees. This not only proved effective at reducing flood-related damages, but a river constrained by levees allowed widespread economic development elsewhere in the vast floodplain. However, today, many decades later, a less desirable secondary side-effect is becoming painfully apparent: the inhibited river is no longer able to deposit sediment across its historic floodplain, a function that is essential for land-building and a factor that is contributing to the loss of land in the river’s delta region. While there are other processes contributing to this land loss, 4,300 hectares of land in coastal Louisiana are disappearing per year, in part due to the lack of sediment deposition from a levee-lined Mississippi River. This illustrates the provisional nature of water solutions over time: societal needs identify a natural process considered to be a problem; a solution is crafted and implemented based on available technologies and social priorities of the era; over time, negative secondary effects of the original solution may form the basis of the next problem-solution cycle.

What is most interesting in the Mississippi problem-solution-problem sequence is that the negative impacts of the decision to construct flood control levees were predicted as far back as 1897. In this case, unlike many others, knowledge existed about the potential side effects of the chosen solution. This highlights the extent to which solutions to water concerns depend on the dominant societal priorities at the time: the drive to further economic development in 19th century America resulted in the decision to construct levees, using the justification that the “great benefit to the following two and three generations” from flood damages avoided and subsequent economic development in the basin would outweigh the predicted “disadvantages to future generations” from coastal land loss.

Today, the US is at a different stage of economic development, and with an ever-increasing element of environmental awareness it is easy to condemn such past decisions as having settled upon a “wrong” solution. It is easy to make these judgments from the landscape of the present-day, where the multitude of benefits from these earlier decisions is taken for granted. Perhaps a more useful activity is to learn what we can from these previously implemented solutions and critically evaluate our own generation’s approach to dealing with the water challenges of our time, rather than focus on the perceived shortcomings of historic solutions. In addition, acknowledging that the decisions we make today have the potential to produce far-reaching impacts in the future, society as a whole and decision-makers in particular should more consciously define what we feel our responsibilities to the future are, and what current actions show a true commitment to these responsibilities.

This temporal balancing act will only become more challenging in the future when considering the added complexities of climate change. Most of the water management systems in existence today were created assuming that the future will look much the same as the past. Climate change invalidates this assumption: we are arguably already starting to experience an increased degree of variability and uncertainty in many natural processes. Luckily, there are already promising research developments in this field, looking for ways to help existing and future solutions continue to meet our continued needs.

One such key emerging field looks at how to create “adaptive” plans to deal with water-related problems. Adaptive plans acknowledge that the external environment as we know it today will change in the future, and that even our best forecasting efforts could fall short in helping us design water management systems that may last several decades. Thus, the focus is shifting from predicting what functions water management infrastructure will need to fulfill a few decades from now, to creating systems that allow adjustment as future conditions become more apparent. This strategy puts the balancing of short-term actions within a larger strategic vision to guide future actions.

While this paradigm of adaptive planning and management emerged primarily out of our generation’s need to find ways to continue to meet the current society’s water management requirements in a more unpredictable future, the concept of adaptive solutions are an exciting development when considering the provisional nature of water solutions over time. More flexible planning and implementation of water solutions holds the potential to allow room for easier changes to the system over time. These desired system changes could be in response to the emergence of unforeseen secondary impacts from the original system, evolving societal preferences or changing priorities over time.

Looking back at history from a present-day perspective, it is not difficult to perceive that past solutions have contributed in part to the development of today’s water problems. Will the evolution of more adaptive solutions allow our generation to weaken or even break this problem-solution-problem cycle? Only time will tell . . .

Image Credit: U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region, Kaibab National Forest.

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