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Innovative Approaches & New Paradigms

Paradigms in water management

1 Paradigm change in water management

1.1 Why a paradigm shift in water management

In recent years there has been increased discussion and debate about a paradigm shift in water management – both from a normative (it should happen) and a descriptive (it happens) perspective. In the past, water resources management focused on well-defined problems that gained urgency with increasing concentration of urban populations and intensification of industrial and agricultural productivity in the 19th and 20th centuries. Hygienic problems within cities and the seemingly insatiable demand for more water drove major efforts in urban water management. Eutrophication problems in lakes and coastal seas triggered more involved research and legislation. Rivers were controlled to protect cities and dryland agriculture from flooding. Technological fixes proved to be very efficient in the short run in solving a number of these urgent environmental problems, e.g. the increasing sophistication of wastewater treatment plants addressing hygienic and pollution problems. However, in general these problems were dealt with in isolation, and potentially undesirable long-term consequences were not taken into consideration. The system paradigm on which traditional water management has been based can be characterized as a “predict-and-control” approach. System design was typically targeted at high predictability and controllability. A whole range of insights/changes in perspective have started to undermine basic assumptions on which traditional water management was based:

  • water crises are often crises of governance and not resource or technology problems
  • increasing uncertainties due to climate and global change reduce the predictability of the boundary conditions under which water management has to perform
  • the polluter-pays-principle and source control are more in line with sustainable water management and have gained increasing support over technical end-of-pipe solutions
  • integrated water management has been strongly promoted as being more efficient and

effective as guiding principle for water management

Before elaborating in more detail on the different voices suggesting a paradigm shift in water management, the general meaning of the term paradigm is discussed below as well as the question whether it is appropriate to use this term to describe what happens in water management.

1.2 Definitions of paradigm and paradigm shift

Driven by Kuhn’s seminal work on scientific revolutions, the word paradigm has been used to refer to a thought pattern in any scientific discipline. In a broader context, paradigm can be used to characterize a way of thinking shared by any epistemic community. An epistemic community may consist of those who accept one version of a story, or one version of validating a story. In the philosophy of science and systems science the process of forming a self-maintaining epistemic community is sometimes called developing a mindset. One can argue that the water management community is such an epistemic community comprising researchers, water management practitioners, regulators, technology manufacturers etc. This community is characterized by a paradigm or mindset of how water management should be undertaken codified in practices, laws, technologies, nature of discourse etc.

In his work on the structure of scientific revolutions Kuhn defined a scientific paradigm as consensus on:

_ What is to be observed and scrutinized

_ The kind of questions that are supposed to be asked and probed for answers in relation to this subject

_ How these questions are to be structured

_ How the results of scientific investigations should be interpreted

Kuhn’s work is based on the assumption that scientific revolutions occur, when scientists encounter anomalies which cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has theretofore been made. The paradigm is not simply the current theory but the entire worldview in which it exists and all of the implications which come with it.

Based on this understanding of paradigms it seems to be justified to use the notion of paradigm to describe and analyse the different control approaches in water management. As pointed out by Pahl- Wostl (2007) one may talk of a social construction of simplicity that has characterized environmental resources management in the past decades. Complexity has been reduced by focusing on issues in isolation and problems could be solved by technical means by focusing on a narrowly defined domain.


Working definition of a water management paradigm:

A water management paradigm refers to a set of basic assumptions about the nature of the system to be managed, the goals of management and the ways in which these

management goals can be achieved. The paradigm is shared by what can be called an epistemic community of the actors involved in water management. The paradigm is

manifested in artefacts such as technical infrastructure, planning approaches, regulations, engineering practices, models etc.


1.3 Some voices advocating a paradigm shift in water management

The following section gives an overview of several arguments from a selection of papers advocating a paradigm shift in natural resources management more generally, and water management in particular. The discussion started as early as 1994 and is still ongoing as documented by more recent publications.

As early as 1994 Cortner and Moote[1] identified the emergence of a paradigm shift in land and water resources management. They are the only authors who define what they mean by paradigm shift and refer to the literature on scientific revolutions.

Cortner and Moote (1994, p 167) summarize their approach as: “The classical model of a paradigm shift is used to explore changes that are occurring in public lands and water resources management. Recent policy developments suggest that the traditional paradigm, which is characterized by sustained yield, is in the process of being invalidated. While no new paradigm has been fully accepted, the emerging paradigm does appear to be based on two principles: ecosystem management and collaborative decision making. Implementation of these two principles is likely to require extensive revision of traditional management practices and institutions. Failure to address these issues could result in adoption of the rhetoric of change without any lasting shift in management practices or professional attitudes.”

Integrated Watershed Management - A New Paradigm for Water Management?[2]


Ward (1995, p2) highlighted in his forward to a special issue on “Integrated Watershed Management – A New Paradigm for Water Management” the need for change: “Water management, as it has a number of times in the past, is undergoing considerable change in the 1990s. Past efforts to break down water management activities into highly specialized subject areas (eg flood control, water supply, recreation, irrigation, and waste water treatment) have resulted in the creation of large institutions that today are increasingly being questioned relative to their ability to meet the needs of the 21st century. Universities have organized themselves to meet the staffing, research and outreach needs of many of these institutions.

Calls to “integrate” water management activities into a more holistic approach are increasingly heard. The goal appears to be to find a more effective way to meet the constantly evolving water-related needs of society. The terms being used to describe this new approach to water management vary. “Integrated Resource Protection”, “Integrated Watershed Management”, and “Ecosystem Management” are but a few of the terms. To some, these words elicit a sigh of, “Here we go again!” While to others, the words reflect a major paradigm shift in water management. To still others, the terms imply a threat to “take” water from existing uses and give it to other uses.”

Gleick (2000, p. 127) [3] talks of a ‘changing water paradigm’:

“This ‘changing water paradigm’ has many components, including a shift away from sole, or even primary, reliance on finding new sources of supply to address perceived new demands, a growing emphasis on incorporating ecological values into water policy, a re-emphasis on meeting basic human needs for water services, and a conscious breaking of the ties between economic growth and water use. A reliance on physical solutions continues to dominate traditional planning approaches, but these solutions are facing increasing opposition. At the same time, new methods are being developed to meet the demands of growing populations without requiring major new construction or new large-scale water transfers from one region to another. More and more water suppliers and planning agencies are beginning to explore efficiency improvements, implement options for managing demand, and reallocating water among users to reduce projected gaps and meet future needs. The connections between water and food are receiving increasing attention as the concerns of food experts begin to encompass the realities of water availability. These shifts have not come easily; they have met strong internal opposition. They are still not universally accepted, and they may not be permanent.

Nevertheless, these changes represent a real shift in the way humans think about water use.”

US Army Corps of Engineers on Adaptive Management[4]:

In the executive summary of their report on the role of Adaptive Water Management for Water Resources Planning the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (2004) highlights the need for a paradigm shift: “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has constructed much of the nation’s inland navigation, flood management, port and harbor, and coastal protection infrastructure. For much of the Corps’ history, the objectives of its civil works program for water resources development have been to construct and maintain channels and ports for commercial navigation, reduce flood damages, protect beaches against erosion, and produce hydroelectric power (and more recently, to promote ecosystem restoration). There have always been criticisms of Corps analytical methods and decision making, but the agency’s engineering and planning expertise was long held in high regard by many observers. But the setting of U.S. water resources management changed in the latter part of the twentieth century. There were environmental consequences of previous economic development projects, laws were passed to protect the environment and endangered species, new concepts of ecosystem science and water management were developed, and there was increased recognition of longterm risks and uncertainties within water resources management. In addition, challenges to the Corps’ analytical abilities became widespread and many well-informed interest groups and citizens demanded a greater voice in project design and decision making. The U.S. Congress also gave the Corps a specific ecosystem restoration mission in the 1990s. Furthermore, biological and ecological scientists increasingly noted that hydrologic variability and extremes—which the Corps had been traditionally expected to reduce and control—are often essential to the health of aquatic and coastal ecosystems. These scientific and social changes, along with inadequacies of traditional water management frameworks and approaches, prompted the search for water management and ecosystem restoration strategies that can better respond to new knowledge and to shifting social and economic preferences.

The concept of “adaptive management” has gained attention as having the potential to help address these types of changes and challenges. Adaptive management promotes flexible decision making that can be adjusted in the face of uncertainties as outcomes from management actions and other events become better understood. Careful monitoring of these outcomes both advances scientific understanding and helps adjust policies or operations as part of an iterative learning process. Adaptive management also recognizes the importance of natural variability in contributing to ecological resilience and productivity. It is not a “trial and error” process, but rather emphasizes learning while doing. Adaptive management does not represent an end in itself, but rather a means to more effective decisions and enhanced benefits. Its true measure is in how well it helps meet environmental, social, and economic goals, increases scientific knowledge, and reduces tensions among stakeholders.

The foundations of adaptive management rest in many fields, but its initial presentation as a natural resources management paradigm was in the 1970s, when it was offered as a way to help managers take action in the face of uncertainties, to reduce uncertainties, and to craft management strategies capable of responding to unanticipated events. Adaptive management is not a “one size fits all” or a “cookbook” process, as experience with the concept and its related procedures to date is limited and evolving. There are multiple views and definitions regarding adaptive management, but elements that have been identified in theory and in practice are: management objectives that are regularly revisited and accordingly revised, a model(s) of the system being managed, a range of management options, monitoring and evaluating outcomes of management actions, mechanisms for incorporating learning into future decisions, and a collaborative structure for stakeholder participation and learning.

These elements have been traditionally viewed and promoted, to varying degrees, as essential to sound water resources management; adaptive management offers a framework for their integration. Implementation of adaptive management also provides the potential to respond in a timely manner to changing conditions, social objectives, and new knowledge. It can therefore help avoid costly or irreparable mistakes and unintended consequences.”

The Rocky Mountain Institute – On a paradigm shift for water management

The following text is a direct quite from homepage of the Rocky-Mountains Institute:


“Methods used by industrialized societies to manage water supply, wastewater, and stormwater were essentially established in broad outline a hundred or more years ago. These methods were highly successful in addressing development and sanitation objectives, but today their functional and economic effectiveness in fulfilling environmental, quality of life, and other objectives is often questioned. Conventional methods are evolving in new directions. At the same time, new technologies, and old ones in newly refined forms, are emerging that present new options for water systems. Institutional and managerial innovations are likewise emerging at a rapid rate. It appears that development of a new paradigm for water systems is both necessary and likely.

The old paradigm and the emerging paradigm are broadly characterized below. These are simplifications of course, and many systems are in transition, but the rough differences in approach are instructive.”


NeWater – on a paradigm shift in water management:

For the past two decades, new, more integrated approaches to water management have been developed and are being implemented to address perceived shortcomings in earlier approaches. During the last decade, the principle of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) has, for example, been used as a framework for the implementation of such integrated approaches to water management (GWP-TEC, 2000). “Integrated” clearly indicates an aspiration to functionally engage a range of perspectives by formally considering a wide range of potential trade-offs at different scales in space and time. Such an approach attempts to overcome the short-comings of technical, end-of-pipe solutions dealing with individual problems in isolation and thus often neglecting unexpected consequences (Pahl-Wostl, 2007a). However, implementation of an integrated resources management approach that fully accounts for the complexity and interdependencies of human-technology-environment systems has yet to be realized. The increasing awareness of the complexity of environmental problems and of human-technology-environment systems has encouraged the  development of new management approaches based on the insight that the systems to be managed are, in broad terms, complex, non-predictable and characterized by unexpected responses to intervention (Pahl-Wostl, 2002; Pahl-Wostl in press; Prato, 2003; Light and Blann, 2000; Committee on Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research, 1999). Such complex adaptive systems are characterized as hierarchies of components interacting within and across scales with emergent properties that cannot be predicted by knowing the components alone (Lansing 2003). Control is distributed rather than central (Allen & McGlade, 1985; Pahl-Wostl, 1995). Rather than trying to change the structure of complex, adaptive systems to make them controllable by external intervention, innovative management approaches aim at making use of the selforganizing properties of the systems to be managed.

This implies a paradigm shift in water management from a prediction and control to a management as learning approach. The change towards adaptive management could be defined as “learning to manage by managing to learn”. Such change aims at increasing the adaptive capacity of river basins at different scales. Some structural requirements for a system to be adaptive have been summarized in the following table. Two different regimes are contrasted as the extreme, opposing ends of six axes.



Current approaches to realizing integrated water management build on the heritage of a predict-and-control paradigm that has been dominating the water management community for decades. Failure to implement integrated approaches may not be related to the principle of integration itself but rather to the mental models that frame the process of its implementation. The characteristics of integrated adaptive regimes are to be regarded as working hypotheses since the change towards more adaptive regimes is yet slow and empirical

Current approaches to realizing integrated water management build on the heritage of a predict-and-control paradigm that has been dominating the water management community for decades. Failure to implement integrated approaches may not be related to the principle of integration itself but rather to the mental models that frame the process of its implementation. The characteristics of integrated adaptive regimes are to be regarded as working hypotheses since the change towards more adaptive regimes is yet slow and empirical data and practical experience thus limited. One possible reason for this lack of innovation is the strong interdependence of the factors stabilizing current management regimes. One cannot, for example, move easily from top-down to participatory management practices without changing the whole approach to information and risk management. Hence, research is urgently needed to better understand the interdependence of key elements of water management regimes and the dynamics of transition processes in order to be able to compare and evaluate alternative management regimes and to implement and support transition processes if required.


1.4 What unites the voices suggesting a paradigm shift in water management?

All examples in the previous section explicitly use the notion of a paradigm for characterizing water management but only Cortner and Moote define explicitly what they mean by a paradigm shift. Elements that seem to be prominent in these descriptions:

_ Participatory management and collaborative decision making

_ increased integration of issues and sectors

_ management of problem sources not effects

_ decentralized and more flexible management approaches

_ more attention to management of human behaviour by “soft” measures

_ include environment explicitly in management goals

_ open and shared information sources (including linking science and decision making)

_ incorporating iterative learning cycles

The different sources differ in detail and emphasis but not in the essential elements of the nature of the paradigm shift. The concept of a regime is only used in the NeWater project whereas the other contributions summarize what is named regime in NeWater as paradigm by stating basic assumptions crucial for management related to different regime elements. The paradigm shift in water management may be interpreted as a sign of an increased awareness of complexity and a fundamental change in understanding what management implies which is not only limited to the field of natural resources and water (Pahl-Wostl, 2007).

Source : PARADIGMS IN WATER MANAGEMENT Report of the NeWater project -

New Approaches to Adaptive Water Management under Uncertainty 2006.



[1] Cortner,H.J. and Moote,M.A. (1994). Trends and Issues in Land and Water Resources Management: Setting the Agenda for Change.

Environmental Management, 18: 167-173.


[2] Ward, R.C. (1995). Special Issue on „Integrated Watershed Management – A New Paradigm for Water Management? Journal of

Contemporary Water Research and Education, vol, 100.

[3] Gleick,P.H. (2000). The Changing Water Paradigm: A Look at Twenty-first Century Water Resources Development. Water

International, 25, 127-138.

[4] Panel on Adaptive Management for Resource Stewardship, Committee to Assess the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Methods of

Analysis and Peer Review for Water Resources Project Planning, National Research Council (2004). Adaptive Management for Water

Resources Project Planning.

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