Kaveh Madani (shown to the left), one of the smartest people in the room when it comes to water resources, sustainability, and hydrosystems modeling, just sent me this thoughtful editorial that he and Peder Hjorth (Lund University, Sweden) just published in one of the ASCE journals, the Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management.
Kaveh just departed the University of Central Florida for Imperial College in London, UK. He received his PhD under Jay Lund at the University of California-Davis, and while there, created the innovative SISWEBS family of websites (including the WaterSISWEB site) in 2008.
Here are the first few paragraphs:
Sustainable development has become a popular concept in recent years. The threats of global climate change and a looming water crisis have made us aware of the need for more prudence in select- ing development options. Water professionals have demonstrated a burgeoning interest in sustainability, especially through a growing literature promoting systems approaches for integrated and sustain- able water-resources management (e.g., Simonovic 1996; Loucks 1997, 2000; Cai et al. 2002; Sandoval-Solis et al. 2011). There is an emerging understanding that some careful attention is required to figure out what the term really means. Apart from the setting up of the Dublin Conference in 1992, at the global scale, water professionals have not been especially prominent in the explanation or promotion of the paradigm shift called for by the quest for sustainable development.
This editorial argues that owing to the prevailing confusion in sustainability terms, perceptions, and concepts, the actions and policies advocated by mainstream water managers and scientists cannot, and do not, conform to the basic idea of sound and socially equitable development. There is reason to voice serious concern about the questions water professionals ask and the answers they provide concerning sustainable development and water resources sustainability. There is definitely a need to clarify the semantics and to identify some weaknesses in current concepts and reasoning. As Lund (2013) points out, water management is often very differ- ent from what we think intuitively or what we have been taught.
There are five major issues that should be considered by our community for sustainability monitoring and assessment, which will be addressed throughout this editorial.
And here is their summary:
Our problems in defining sustainable water management lie with us as a profession. We created them. New challenges require new thinking and changed priorities, updating our sense of what is important and coming to grips with mistaken beliefs. If sustainable development is to be sustained as a development paradigm, it needs to be based on increasingly flexible and diverse approaches in the development of strategies for a society living in harmony with itself and the environment. While the best path to the solution is never clear, we should remember the advice of John W. Tukey (1965) that “far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.”
The water resources community seems to suffer from a collective or institutional complacency in tackling the sustainable development problem. The main reasoning tends to be that we have developed a very sophisticated range of systems models, and there is no reason to change them even if they suffer from some short- comings making them inappropriate for sustainability monitoring and assessment. To paraphrase the late David Pearce (1996): “even if our models will not deliver sustainable development, they will allow us to fail in a more elegant manner.” So, any concern or criticism expressed about their utility is essentially dismissed as spin. However the research community needs improved tools and sustainability evaluation methods that improve the understand- ing and guidance by combining the capacity to create, test, and maintain adaptive actions and opportunities (Holling 2004). Such results could potentially benefit millions of people now and in the future.
The institutional complacency of the water community in tacking the sustainable development problem can be overcome by developing new skills. One skill is to manage change, and another is organizing institutions to learn. Systems often tend to stagnate and fail to adapt to changes. Even an apparently stagnant system can be bubbling underneath and eventually reach the thresh- old where a crisis emerges and change boils over. It is important to learn how to protect a system from its own instability and fragility, and at times, excessive stability—characterized by gridlock and senescence. To avoid such problems, we need something that helps us understand the dynamics and interactions at work in a water resources system—a framework that focuses not so much on logical arguments or empirical verifications but on its effects on the sense-making and empowerment of those who use it (Kurtz and Snowden 2003). Such an understanding is most readily established by a learning-by-doing approach.
Be sure to read the material in between; well worth it!
“...even if our models will not deliver sustainable development, they will allow us to fail in a more elegant manner.” - David Pearce, from the editorial