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A systemic approach to water resource management

Principal Civil Engineer Brendan Bromwich helped Defra develop an innovative approach to analyzing river catchments as environmental and social systems and has now demonstrated the value of the approach at regional level for Water Resources South East.

He explains why systems approaches are being applied and the opportunities they bring.

What is a systems approach to water management?

What is a systems approach to water management?

Very simply, a systems-based approach involves addressing water holistically across engineering, environmental, economic and social dimensions to ensure that benefits across these domains are achieved.

It considers the interconnections, interdependencies and effects between different users – and it involves collaboration between them all. Through the identification of leverage points for improved efficiency or potential for cascade failure that would otherwise be unseen, a systems approach holds potential to unlock efficiencies and reduce risk for water companies and other water users alongside the delivery of environmental benefits such as biodiversity.

The UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) commissioned us to set out the principles of a systems approach to water resource management and explore the application of these in two contrasting catchments. We worked in the River Medway in Sussex and Kent, an area with a mix of urban and rural interest and competing land uses for agriculture, transport and commerce; and the River Eden in Cumbria, which is mainly farmland. Since then we’ve applied the approach to resilience planning with a multisector perspective at the regional level for Water Resources South East (WRSE). WRSE brings together the water companies operating in south-east England and stands to benefit from better collaboration between the multiple stakeholders and water providers in this highly water-stressed region.

The two projects are very different. The original project for Defra established proof of concept for the method and explored different development pathways for the two regions. Scaling up to the regional level, we looked at a wider range of economic sectors and how they engage with water and the environment. We then used the systems maps to analyse the resilience of the water system across the south east and use this to develop the resilience framework for the WRSE investment plan.

We are convinced that a systems approach to water resource management can unlock a step-change in efficiency that will benefit clients, customers and wider society. This idea was reflected in the UK government’s environmental vision: ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’ in 2018. It signalled a shift towards an integrated and systemic approach to the natural environment, recognising the importance of environmental health to social and economic health too. In the last few years, references to systems have featured more widely in thinking around water resources and the natural environment. We hope this sort of systems thinking is taken up by other governments and water sector clients.

How can a systems approach unlock benefits?

How can a systems approach unlock benefits?

A systems-based approach to water management at catchment or regional level involves collaboration between all stakeholders in that area – water companies, industry, local authorities, government, environmental agencies, NGOs, and infrastructure owners and operators.

This collaboration includes other sectors, such as water-intensive industries like agriculture and energy. Doing so enables interventions to be made with a full understanding of interconnected impacts, with a view to maximising overall social and economic outcomes.

For example, one really significant insight developed through our work has been to map out the benefits of improving soil health to multiple systems. The agricultural system needs to be understood as being both upstream and downstream of the public water supply system. Improving soil health therefore improves the resilience of the public water supply system as well enhancing agricultural resilience. When there are floods, then spikes in poor water quality can cause problems for water treatment works. In droughts, high value cropping systems create increased demands on public water supplies. By enhancing soil health, benefits accrue to the resilience of farms, the public water supply and other systems such as flood protection. There are additional benefits for carbon sequestration and biodiversity too.

Applying this sort of systems thinking helps deliver more sustainable water resources while boosting social outcomes including health and wellbeing, prosperity and environmental benefits.

What did our systems mapping work reveal?

What did our systems mapping work reveal?

The Medway catchment comprises a mix of rural, urban and estuarine areas. Transport links between London and Europe mean the area serves as a continental ‘gateway’, key to the local and national economy.

The area is also known for its fruit farming. Eden is a rural catchment known for dairy and sheep farming, and which has suffered significant flooding in recent years.

We used participatory systems mapping (PSM) to reveal the complex relationships of cause and effect in both catchments. PSM involves engaging with stakeholders and working with them to produce a systems map, with nodes representing ‘functions’ (broadly defined as outcomes, outputs or services that matter to stakeholders) and ‘factors’ (variables that influence or are influenced by these functions, directly or indirectly). Arrows between these functions and factors show where positive or negative causal relationships exist. The qualitative information in the maps was then analysed with numerical methods to create quantifiable data, with sub-maps providing more detail on core areas of interest where needed. The point is to understand common interests and causal interactions between stakeholders to inform strategic thinking and maximise the outcomes of any interventions.

In Medway we explored two contrasting pathways for development of the catchment. With stakeholders we set out an ‘agricultural vision’ involving sustainable farming practices geared towards greater fruit production. As well as creating jobs, this scenario would contribute to better soil health. The benefits of this include greater carbon sequestration through increased vegetation and reduced flooding due to slower water run-off. Boosting traditional fruit growing would also contribute to tourism and a reinforced sense of place. A ‘gateway vision’ which focuses on Medway’s urban development and transport links would have positive impacts on jobs, population growth and commercial development, but would increase flood risk. However, these two visions can be interlinked, with farmland development helping to mitigate the risk of flooding from urban development, while access to markets benefits the agricultural sector.

The Eden map provides useful insights into land use and the catchment ecosystem, with sub-maps highlighting how upstream influences such as land use, land management practices, soil health, climate change and nature-based solutions affect water quality, biodiversity and carbon storage. We also developed a better understanding of how to embed change in farming practices. We investigated the competing influences of convention and cultural norms, policy incentives, market prices and advice from trusted partners in enabling change in on-farm adoption of more sustainable practices.

Both maps can assist policy makers or strategic planners in supporting collaboration between water companies and local stakeholders for mutual gain, meeting catchment objectives and delivering wider value to the community.

How was this extended at the regional level?

How was this extended at the regional level?

The focus of our regional work was to support the development of the WRSE’s resilience framework. We provided a broader perspective beyond public water supply to other sectors and greater analysis of the environment as the system that underpins the operation of all others.

We used systems mapping to show how the environment supported other systems including value chains in different sectors, public and non-public water supply. By showing how these systems join up and influence each other we were able to explore how different shocks and stresses influence and disrupt these interconnected systems. This analysis enabled us to validate the selection of resilience metrics relevant to the public water supply and other systems.

In addition to the insights around soil health described above, our analysis showed that other important factors to include in the resilience framework were the impact of collaborative multi-benefit planning and customer behaviour. Where companies build a ‘social contract’ with customers, then customers are more likely to engage in demand management measures like hosepipe bans in times of drought. The system mapping showed how customer relations are important in the resilience of the water supply system, so we included customer relations as a resilience metric.

Lessons from the catchment project helped us streamline and clarify the systems mapping so a broader perspective could be achieved without making the process too exhaustive. Catchments are important building blocks in understanding the environment and water systems, so building on the insights we gained was crucial.

By interviewing representatives from different sectors, we were able to explore contrasting approaches to risk and resilience across sectors. Understanding different attitudes and cultures around regulating, pooling and trading risk allowed us to establish how different organisations contribute to resilience of the wider system as a whole.

How can this work be taken further?

How can this work be taken further?

We are developing the approach to enhance the identification of interventions that produce multiple benefits in complex systems like water resources.

Having developed tools which help us analyse our maps, we’re extending the ways in which insights can be drawn out for different purposes. For option development, a four-step process can be used: 1) selecting a principal benefit of interest, e.g. water quality; 2) identifying interventions that contribute to that benefit; 3) looking at interventions to see what co-benefits arise, such as flood regulation or carbon sequestration; 4) building a collaborative approach with other actors interested in those co-benefits. In this way a collaborative approach across a group of actors interested in system transformation can be established. This creates a basis for identifying different funding streams around all benefits that can be created by different actors working together.

While our mapping work for DEFRA focused on single catchments, we are now working with a nested system of multiple catchments at the regional scale. Mapping an entire region means we can bring in industry, the energy sector and other largescale, multisector players for a comprehensive understanding of the different influences on water availability and quality.

We look forward to future development of this work, which will include linking up systems maps with our GIS and geospatial digital twin capabilities. This will allow a strong baselining of metrics relevant to investment planning to be established. Systems analysis will then enable investment portfolios to be optimised for public value, environmental resilience and other benefits across the region, taking into account local variations in baseline in increasing detail. A systemic view opens up new possibilities in planning with these multiple objectives in mind, ultimately delivering better integration of sector, environmental, economic and social outcomes.

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