James Knightbridge examines what systems operation means in terms of integrated catchment management and how it can ultimately benefit our environment and society.
The complex nature of our catchments is well known and is becoming increasingly recognised in their management.
There are lessons to learn from cultural theory in tackling ‘wicked problems’ – problems in which no single approach provides a solution, rather, a combination of strategies is required.
Integrated catchment management recognises that no single solution is sufficient in itself. What’s needed is creative interplay between a range of approaches to deliver holistic solutions and a broad vision for tackling catchment-based problems.
As society and the environment in the UK changes, it is not only progressive and aligned policies that we need to deliver and normalise integrated catchment management solutions, it is the embedding of integration into everyday decision-making.
Is systems thinking and operation the solution?
A systems operator can be described as an institution whose primary function is the management of a defined system to achieve co-ordinated and efficient use of a resource.
This is not a new idea. In the UK, National Grid is the established system operator for electricity transmission, as is Network Rail for the railways.
Concepts of systems operators for our environment are highlighted in national planning policy. Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan suggests an approach “in which the 14 local areas are mapped and managed more as a system, with a ‘system operator’ responsible for the strategic management of the natural capital”.
In Wales, the alignment between the Environment Act and the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act is recognition that sustainable management of natural resources to improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing needs to be planned at the local area level, across multiple sectors.
We are already starting to think this way and should draw on learning from the partnerships created through initiatives such as Catchment Based Approach and Water Resources East.
Focus on outcomes
The economist Professor Dieter Helm, in his latest paper on the water sector, considers the history and future of water privatisation and suggests that a focus on outcomes is essential, with a catchment system operator being a means to achieve this.
Evidence from other countries and sectors suggests that catchment system operation could be a viable mechanism. The challenge is integrating the interests of different stakeholders to bring together a model, or series of models, that work at geographical and political scale.
The historic viewpoint of market economies would see water in our catchments as an unowned (but regulated) resource for the taking, each market having its own viewpoint and priorities. In an era of increasing social and climate pressures on this resource, each market will look to protect ‘its’ asset.
Between 2008 and 2017, direct abstraction of water from non-tidal surface water and groundwater in England increased by approximately 14%. The percentage of UK waterbodies achieving ‘good’ or ‘high’ status under the Water Framework Directive has decreased. Meanwhile, the UK’s population continues to grow.
This is a simplification of a complex biophysical and social picture but given these growing pressures, surely it’s time for a new paradigm of these markets working differently, together, and outside of conventional institutions.
For integrated catchment management, this will mean a shift in the mindsets of the institutions planning and implementing schemes.
With an outcomes focus for our catchments, such as plentiful and clean water, we can achieve alignment and maximise value from our investments in the environment for wider, and multiple, benefit.
To turn this theory into practice, we need to consider the multiple capitals and direct attention towards regulatory alignment and adaptive governance.
We need to take advantage of the enabling tools available to us (notably, digital delivery and automation), influence policy in this time of change, harness the move towards nature and social-based solutions, and channel the power of societal change. Now is the time to do this.
Existing systems cannot deliver transformational change. Systems operation can act as a mechanism for driving truly integrated catchment management.
This article was first published by Water & Wastewater Treatment (WWT) magazine.
James Knightbridge, Mott MacDonald’s catchment management lead, is working with the water sector and regulators to increase understanding of what catchment system operators will mean for the industry and how to implement this thinking.