Every type of management involves making decisions. In water resources management, many decisions need to be taken and planning processes tend to be rather complex. Because of the complexity of the decision situations and the difficulty of making good decisions, the application of decision-making support is an issue.
Due to extension of the management object and the claim for an integrative approach to problems, water resources management typically deals with highly complex decision situations were many actors are involved in the decision making process and many people are affected by resulting decisions. Additionally, decision making in water resources management takes place under high uncertainty and partial ignorance of, for example, the set of potential management measures, the consequences of these measures, and the preference of those affected (Sigel et al. 2010). The stakeholders involved often have to face diverging and conflicting positions and interests regarding resource utilisation and the related issue of its valuation. The scope of goals range from irrigation for agriculture to drinking water supply, wastewater treatment, flood protection and shipping, as well as tourism. For the decision-making process, economic principles such as cost-effectiveness, the costs-by-cause principle and the cost-recovery principle need to be taken into account. Oftentimes scientists and/or political advisors are consulted to bring to the table their scientific expertise. In order to make good decisions in water resources management, alternatives for actions need to be examined and compared. Specific systems and methods are applied to support the decision makers and to guarantee transparency for all participants at all times.
Decisions in water resources management are not made spontaneously, but are the result of a long and thorough planning and decision process. A strategic decision-making process contains three main phases (Mintzberg et al., 1976).
- Identification phase: presenting the problems
- Development phase: searching for alternatives
- Selection phase: making choices for solutions
In practice, it is important to collect and organize relevant information, to develop and consider alternatives for certain actions, to obtain opinions and, if necessary, include the people affected in the decision-making process. In addition, different points of view, facts and opinions need to be evaluated. The objective is to make a balanced overall assessment to finally reach a reasonable decision.
Decision support systems
Decision support systems (DSSs) are computer-based instruments that can be used to support the decision making process. In a DSS, a structured approach towards river basin management is combined with advanced information technology, like a geographic information system (GIS) or numerical models, leading to an instrument that facilitates the processing, analysis and presentation of information. The application of such a system increases the quality and efficiency of decision-making through easy identification of the problems, rapid assimilation through graphical display, comparison of alternatives, cost reduction and clear documentation (Labadie, 2007).
Examples of decision-making support in practice
In practice, different approaches to decision support can be distinguished. One approach comprises mechanistic procedures which automatically make either several suggestions for a solution or present the best solution based on predefined objective functions and the data entered. Another approach is to use interactive procedures which require the decision-makers’ expertise and help them to improve their ability to judge. Furthermore, there are conceptual methods for supporting the structured decision analysis procedure (e. g. multi-criteria decision analysis). In cases that require complex predictions, they are even unavoidable. To get a better idea of decision-making support in practice, two examples of the funding activity IWRM are presented below (UFZ, 2013).
Sustainable Water Resources Management in the coastal region of Shandong Province, People's Republic of China
This project is concerned with the integrated management of the Huangshui catchment area in north eastern China. Here, the main emphasis is on the provision of support for decision-making in the areas of water management planning and sustainable agriculture. The first step consists of gathering all the decision-relevant information together in a geographic information system. On this basis, water management measures can be selected from a comprehensive catalogue of measures and combined with the aid of special decision tools. The selection takes into account both socio-economic and ecological conditions. The definition and selection of high-priority combinations of measures is done using a combination mechanism based on various scenarios in order to achieve the maximum cost-effectiveness. The consequences of the decision-making alternatives are investigated using hydro(geo)logical simulations and balancing models. The decision-making tools, models and databases are linked together via appropriate interfaces, forming a complex, integrated decision support system. In order to achieve the respective project goals, close and consistent cooperation with the Chinese partner institutions was extremely important.
More on this case study: Overall-effective measures for sustainable water resources management in the coastal area of Shandong Province, PR China
SMART – Integrated Water Resources Management in the Lower Jordan Valley
The joint project SMART is being carried out in the Lower Jordan Valley, where questions of water management contribute to an already highly sensitive political climate. As a means of preventing conflict over water usage and promoting the peace process as well as sustainable regional development, the extremely scarce water resources are to be managed jointly by Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians. Therefore, the search for suitable compromises becomes a critical factor. Formal decision-making support is provided by means of intensive multilateral communication. The decision-relevant data and information are collected in an information system with an associated GIS, and also via the internet-based DROPEDIA knowledge platform. Special planning and decision-making tools have been developed in order to be able to plan individual measures such as managed aquifer recharging. Decision alternatives are made available in the form of packages of measures, and they can be underpinned using a systematic process for optimizing multiple goals. The respective consequences of given decisions are investigated by means of hydro(geo)logical simulations and balancing models. These systems are being developed as internet-accessible toolboxes. The experience gained through this joint project once more underlines the vital importance of involving stakeholders and decision-makers in the process of achieving acceptable compromises.
More on this case study: SMART II - IWRM Project
UFZ (2013): IWRM. Integrated Water Resources Management: From Research to Implementation. Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ. 4th edition. Leipzig, Magdeburg. 82 p.
Mintzberg, H.; Raisinghani, D. & A. Theoret (1967): The structure of “unstructured” decision processes, Administrative Science Quarterly 21, p. 246 – 275.
Sigel K, Klauer B, Pahl-Wostl C (2010) Conceptualising uncertainty in environmental decision-making: the example of the EU Water Framework Directive. Ecological Economics 69, 502-510.
Labadie, J (2007) Lecture Notes. Seminar on Engineering Decision Support and Expert Systems – CIVE610. Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado.