Can we afford to limit ourselves to a single future?

By John H. Matthews

Coordinator, Secretariat, Alliance for Global Water Adaption (AGWA)

The future of water is a world that has moved beyond “optimizing” water management for a single future. In effect, the future of water is not one future but many. “Optimizing” or “optimization” refers to the standard method for selecting the “best” solution to a particular water management problem. Optimizing sounds great — who doesn’t want the best solution? Engineers and economists regularly develop criteria and models to choose from a number of alternative strategies. What’s the problem with this approach?

The problem is that we don’t face a “single solution” future anymore, especially if we are trying to manage water sustainably over decades or centuries. We face a future with complex alternatives, many of which may not be knowable. Designing for one future is almost certainly the best way to develop an unsustainable solution.

What if the future doesn’t look like your models, or if you picked the wrong future? If a proposed solution is, say, a dam or a water treatment facility that will likely last for well over a century, we are very unlikely to be using credible indicators for evaluating sustainability and success. An optimal solution may work for a while. But what seems optimal now is unlikely to endure. An “optimal” solution is hubris, not humility or flexibility.

At a talk in Japan several years ago, an engineer declared that “The greatest obstacle to defining sustainable water management solutions was computational capacity,” using maximizing optimization through linked models for climate change, ecosystems, economic transformations, and social shifts. From his viewpoint, we simply need bigger computers to find the single best sustainable water management problem. About the same time, a friend from Peru with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told me that “The ‘optimal’ solution is always the wrong solution.”

Water solutions developed a century ago, for instance, are evaluated by very different standards today. Many of the impacts from past development have been regretful and sometimes catastrophic. We would not make many of those decisions in the same way today. We now care about poverty alleviation, equity, and limiting or reversing environmental damage. We have shifted in the West from agricultural and industrial economies to service and technology economies. What will we care about in another century? How will our economies look like then? Single-solution, optimized approaches to managing water — especially for rapidly expanding developing economies — may even deepen impoverishment and sponsor permanent ecological damage if they cannot adjust to conditions that may be hard to predict today.

My Peruvian friend was recommending that we develop flexible, open ended solutions for managing water. For example, Deltares and the Dutch Water & Environment Ministry have been working to develop methodologies that encourage “pathways” thinking, which envisions the social, environmental, political, and economic conditions evolve along with our understanding of those conditions, so we need to navigate across scenarios and decision making trajectories.

Through these and analogous approaches, we can track sustainability as a shifting, moving target.

Biography – John H Matthews

John H. Matthews is the Secretariat Coordinator and co-founder for the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA; http://alliance4water.org), which is chaired by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and the World Bank. An aquatic ecologist by training, his work integrates technical and policy knowledge to support resilient resource management, climate-robust infrastructure operations, and economic development. Matthews has published widely for technical, practitioner, and general audiences, including recent articles in Science and Nature Climate Change and reports for the World Bank and UN agencies. AGWA also maintains a capacity building and learning site at http://agwaguide.org.