Water management in the era of climate change requires meaningful decision-making

Published on
February 6, 2019

Decisions about water management in river deltas or mountain areas are often based on technical considerations, such as water levels and budgets. But in the era of climate change, decision-making on water management is becoming increasingly complex. Whether it’s about ‘super dikes’ in the Netherlands or the water supply for a megacity like Lima, an accurate cost-benefit analysis is not enough on its own. A meaningful perspective on the future of the water system is needed as well. In his inaugural lecture as personal professor at Wageningen University & Research on 7 February, Art Dewulf introduces meaningful decision-making as a foundation for sustainable water management.

Professor Dewulf’s lecture – Taking meaningful decisions – Sensemaking and decision-making in water and climate governance - links insights on decision-making to insights on how people assign meaning to particular situations. If we want a better understanding of decision-making on water management in the era of climate change, there needs to be more of a focus on how interpretations determine those decisions. For example, do we interpret a period of water shortage as a one-off exception, or a sign of climate change? Depending on the meaning assigned to such an event, we can be led to make different policy choices.

“You see that decisions about water are often based on technocratic reasoning on the part of experts, and they are often expressed in measurable parameters such as cubic metres of water and financial data. But decision-making is not just about a correct calculation of costs and benefits, or about applying the right rules. Accurate cost-benefit calculations are often unfeasible for complex problems, and it may not be clear which rules apply. In such situations the narrative that comes with the figures is crucial, along with the question of whether that narrative offers a meaningful perspective to water authorities and water users,” says Professor Dewulf. 

Combination of clear choices and a meaningful perspective

It's not enough to make a choice based on technical considerations alone, without a good narrative. Grand statements and symbolic politics also aren’t enough. Meaningful decision-making requires a combination of clear choices and a meaningful perspective.

Professor Dewulf’s research focuses not just on deltas but also on those parts of the world where rivers originate, such as the Andes and Himalayan mountains. “You can see these as the water towers of the world. And you can also witness accelerated climate change there, with glaciers melting. As water becomes scarcer, competition for it increases. In Peru, for example, you see how the coastal city of Lima, where it never rains, depends on rivers from the Andes for its water supply. Recent policies have obliged coastal water companies to invest in water management in the mountains, home to predominantly poor farmers. Those farmers need the water too so they can irrigate in the dry season, so it’s not that straightforward to get them on board. But if investments in those mountain regions become meaningful for farmers as an acknowledgement of the value of their livelihood and environment, that can be crucial to the success of those investments, sometimes even more so than the material costs and benefits.”

Silver bullet?

Even once policymakers have come to a meaningful decision, the job is not yet done. “It’s not a silver bullet. Meaning keeps developing,” says Professor Dewulf. “Policymakers need to keep responding to changing circumstances, and to voices of dissent from people who don’t agree with the decision. That’s a way to achieve sustainable and resilient water systems.”