From Mosaic to Systematic: Applying Systems Thinking to Water Resource Management

Richard Allen Burgess, Keith Horbatuck, Mario Beruvides


Effective Water Resource Management (WRM) is a complex undertaking that requires a variety of solutions; including economic ones.   Both supply-side and demand-side management approaches have been implemented with the goal of meeting the demands of multiple stakeholders while being constrained by challenges such as infrastructure inefficiencies, water source access issues, and short-termism/political expedience.  While successes have been made on both the supply and demand side, there is doubt that either approach is sufficient on its own to promote effective, sustainable water resource management over the long-term.  In light of this, it is natural to propose an amalgamation of the two.  However, combining the approaches without considering 1) which variant is most appropriate or, importantly, 2) potential interaction effects between the two means the hybrid will be merely mosaic in nature.  While such mosaic approaches do reflect a much needed diversity in solutions, they may run the risk of being suboptimal or, worse, counterproductive.  Instead, a systems-based approach toward effective management is necessary.

A complete systems approach includes an understanding of the goals and assumptions underwriting WRM.  An important place to begin is with the concept of resilience.  Water infrastructure managers want their systems to be resilient to stress and the recent crisis in Cape Town, South Africa, illustrates the perils of failing to meet such a goal.  Furthermore, the economic strategies highlighted above are intended to make water systems more resilient.  Given this role, it is critical to be clear about the definition of resilience, who the stakeholders in a resilient system are, and over what time scale resilience is measured.  A systems-based approach to WRM should begin by minimizing conceptual uncertainty.  In Part 1 of this paper, the authors canvas several resilience concepts and highlight some of the philosophical contentions that lie behind them.  In Part 2, the authors review economic theory for both supply and demand-side approaches.  In Part 3, the authors consider how these two strategies can be applied to WRM specifically; leveraging Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s concept of isomorphology to clarify the connection between general economic theory and its application to the management of water resources.  The authors conclude with a summary of the major outcomes of this initial analysis and open questions to be addressed in future research.


water resource management, isomorphology, resilience, supply and demand-side economics

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