How our human choices shape sustainable water management

This article is based on research by Lucie Baudoin and Daniel Arenas

Every living organism depends on water. But globally, freshwater management faces many competing threats and demands. Climate change affects the quality and quantity of freshwater available for growing populations, and so water crises were included among the top three most important threats identified in the 2017 World Economic Forum Global Risks Landscape (alongside extreme weather events and weapons of mass destruction – and far ahead of contagious pandemics).

Understanding the challenges of sustainable water management from a management research point of view was the objective of Lucie Baudoin and Daniel Arenas from the Department of Society, Politics and Sustainability at Esade Business School.

To approach these challenges, they conducted an extensive literature review to assess the contribution of the current management literature on water issues (89 academic articles from 24 journals published between 2006 and 2017) and sustainable water management. The researchers used the social-ecological systems (SES) framework to identify future research opportunities.

Water supply
In water crises, environmental and social issues are intertwined (Photo: Georgiana Kane/Twenty20)

Water as a common-pool resource

In the case of water, every actor in the same freshwater system – such as a river basin – depends on this finite resource. At the same time, every actor can impact its condition (in terms of quantity or quality). Therefore, the sustainable management of this resource is a multi-actor challenge.

Previous research has called for the emergence of polycentric and multi-level organisations to manage water issues. Given the highly variable social and environmental conditions in different parts of the world, regional decision-making and priority setting are a reasonable strategy – such as the efforts studied by Vila et al. on water management for sustainable tourism on the Costa Brava.

However, the focus on management issues and social tensions can detract from the bigger picture and the need to consider the ecology of water issues. Indeed, in water crises, environmental and social issues are intertwined, with numerous feedback mechanisms.

This observation informed the researchers' decision to use the SES framework, developed by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues, and designed to provide scholars from social and environmental sciences with a common language to share work on sustainable resource management.

Costa Brava tourists
Related content: Making better decisions for sustainable tourism water management

The framework explores a set of interrelated components grouped as: 

  • socio, economic, and political settings
  • resource systems
  • governance systems
  • resource units
  • actors
  • interactions
  • outcomes, and
  • related ecosystems

From single raindrops to a stream of research

With 89 articles collected, the researchers had a considerable amount of material to organise, but were disappointed to find a lack of referencing and knowledge-building between the articles, such as might help organise an effective response to the challenges presented. "Our reference network analysis shows that references across the selected articles are close to non-existent: water-related articles in management are more raindrops than a stream of research, and they do not accumulate knowledge on sustainable water management."

Nonetheless, the researchers hope that using the SES framework will shift the attention of management scholars away from a narrow concern for social or management issues linked to water, and towards freshwater systems as a whole – a refocusing that is necessary to truly grasp the complexity of water issues.

Indeed, the researchers contend that their work highlights some critical gaps in the present landscape, and that more work is needed to help the raindrops coalesce into a meaningful stream of knowledge and action. In particular, an understanding of the way that actor interactions drive environmental outcomes was seen to be lacking, not just in terms of impact on water resources, but on related resources, such as energy systems.

"Scholars are concerned with the impact of organisations on the natural environment, but that impact is mostly assessed in indirect, remote, or socially constructed ways," the researchers noted. This, they argue, is why questions of freshwater sustainability are not thoroughly tackled in the current management literature.

It is urgent to link water management practices to environmental outcomes

Furthermore, as the impact of climate change and resource degradation are long-term threats with consequences for future generations, the researchers call for more comparative longitudinal studies to determine the impact of interactions on social and environmental outcomes. They acknowledge the complexity this entails, when cause and effect relationships are circular and chaotic, and the difficulties of resourcing this kind of investigation.

Opening the floodgates…

The article concludes with an urgent call for further research to develop better knowledge accumulation and theory development on sustainable water management.

Perhaps the present hiatus in global industrial production and strategic planning, with its measurable impact on many environmental metrics including those related to water quality, could serve as a moment of pause and reset: to shift focus to the interactions of human actors in collaborative governance institutions, and to how choices impact on our freshwater systems. This can, in turn, help attract funding to deepen academic understanding and thought leadership in this space, and drive the institutional thinking that informs large-scale change.

As Baudoin and Arenas state in their conclusion: "We argue that it is urgent to link water management practices to environmental outcomes as pressure on ecosystems will most likely increase with economic and climatic changes. A better understanding of sustainable water management is therefore more urgent than ever, and organisation and management studies have a role to play."

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