Processes, Tools, and Frameworks for Improving Water Resources Management

Shane Alan Carnohan

Research output: Book/ReportPh.D. thesis

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The global environmental system is approaching a breaking point driven by human activities within the Anthropocene. Population growth and urbanisation are reshaping landscapes placing pressure on natural resources that are needed to sustain human civilisations. Global climate change compound these pressures, adding urgency and leading to unfamiliar problems. Fundamental changes are needed to successfully manage coupled social and eco logical systems. In recognition of this, policies and legislation have shifted towards a systems thinking paradigm, e.g. the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and EU Water Framework Directive (WFD). Implementation has proven challenging where, even two decades after the WFD was enacted, results lag behind expectations especially for surface waters. This foreshadows challenges for emerging policies that have also developed their core aims within a systems thinking paradigm. It is therefore prudent to distil lessons stemming from the water resources management (WRM) domain as these findings will also be relevant more broadly.

Surface water systems are beset by issues stemming from increased agricultural production and rapid urbanisation, which has created patchworks of mixed land-use composed of urban, industrial, agricultural, and natural features. These peri-urban systems present a high-level of complexity having multiple, sources of pollution while crossing boundaries of management institutions. Surface waters hold significant cultural and economic significance and become a contested resource fraught with potential conflict in connection with the multiple use interests found within peri-urban settings. Participatory modelling is an increasingly prescribed approach for addressing these social and ecological aspects of WRM concurrently. Despite widespread use and decades of learnings from empirical and experimental research settings, the success of this approach is mixed. Key challenges are time and resource intensiveness, simulation model complexity and transparency, as well as transferability of processes and models used. These factors can lead to a lack of uptake of results and/or tools that are necessary for supplementing human cognitive abilities and creating sustainable management policies.

This thesis therefore aims to improve WRM by: (1) developing novel participatory process guidance for data scarce and acrimonious contexts; (2) assessing the role of frameworks in bridging across policy, science, and societal silos for sustainable policy implementation, and (3) co-developing an integrated water quantity and quality systems dynamics (SD) modelling tool with expanded potential for use within participatory WRM.

Research was conducted in a South African and Danish catchment, both facing climate change adaptation challenges and high conflict potential among stakeholders. Data scarcity in the South African catchment characterises the major difference between the two catchments, with the Danish catchment benefitting from multiple online gauging stations covering indicators for both water quantity (e.g. stream depth) and quality (e.g. dissolved oxygen sensors).

In the South African catchment, stakeholders included local and national water utilities, mining, and industrial companies, as well as regulation and conservation groups. A novel adaptation of established participatory methods was made, when the locally embedded approach led to recognition of the need to create an inclusive process by combining stakeholder narratives with SD conceptual diagrams. Conceptual diagrams from different sectors were refined and combined through an iterative process into a final diagram reflecting the connections among the groups. Within the same process, a semi-quantitative simulation model was developed, and together with the diagram, used as multi-interpretative and structured visual supplements to support strategic conversations regarding management options. The novel process also gave insights regarding how diverse visual tools could be leveraged to address project time and human resource constraints. A parallel monitoring and evaluation program showed successful learning outcomes for participants regarding strategies for systemic climate change adaptation and ecosystem impacts.

Policy frameworks are critical to support a more rapid uptake of scientific discovery/results, seen as essential for solving complex social ecological system challenges, because due to their role in organising, and facilitating communication of challenges and solutions. The long-standing, Drivers-Pressures-State-Impact-Response (DPSIR), was chosen for analysis due to its history of use in an operational and reporting framework. A case-study approach was taken that included the South African case, policies for greening in China, and regulation of nanosilver and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the EU. This was done by first synthesizing lessons of three previous DPSIR reviews, situating lessons within the most recent literature. This led to the identification of implicit properties of the framework and the recommendation of five key elements which should be made explicit: 1) iteration; 2) risk, uncertainty, and analytical bias; 3) flexible integration; 4) use of quantitative methods, and; 5) clear and standard definitions for DPSIR. The case studies were analysed using the lens of this proposed next generation DPSIR. The successes and pitfalls of the case studies were characterised using the updated framework, showing its versatility across scales and topics while providing a roadmap for next generation DPSIR application.

The co-development of a novel tool, the Dynamic Aquatic Simulation Hub (DASH) was motivated by insights from the first two objectives, including experiences in the South African catchment. SD simulation approaches were used because it is shown to be a preferred method for engaging with stakeholders and is gaining in use within WRM. It was built as an integrated water quantity and quality model, using a lowland, peri-urban Danish catchment as a blueprint, to provide insights in both data scarce and data rich catchments. Data rich application could demonstrate its ability to capture spatiotemporal dynamics found in water quality and quantity data. Data scarce application showed the importance of the SD structural modelling approach which gave insight into the importance of anthropogenic controls on key water resource indicators. Its fast simulation time allows rapid iterative testing of model structural and parameter assumptions, which can be refined with stakeholder input.

The software used for DASH can extend these iterations to broader stakeholder groups via visual user interfaces, which gives new potential for the structured use of multi-interpretative elements within participatory modelling processes. Data rich application furthermore showed the importance of dynamic flow contributions, providing evidence for negative consequences for water quality caused by consolidation of and reduction of urban flow contributions, driven by green transition goals. The importance of integrating quality and quantity was highlighted by findings that high summer temperatures fluctuations have outsized impacts due to low flows during the same period. This was shown to have negative consequences for dissolved oxygen levels, which may be further impacted by nutrient releases brought on by these conditions. The modular design of DASH makes it readily transferable, responding to broader challenges related to WRM. It is anticipated that this will allow resources within participatory modelling processes to be used more efficiently.

In summary, this PhD thesis has demonstrated the role of system dynamics modelling tools to support participatory processes. The need to develop more operational frameworks to improve WRM has been shown by different case studies and experiences. These results can improve future WRM and learnings can hopefully be transferred to broader sustainability challenges globally.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationKgs. Lyngby
PublisherDTU Environment
Number of pages329
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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