Sustainability Venn diagram.

Water Nexus or Disjunction? Data will be the Difference

Much has been said about the water-energy-food nexus. The implication of many of these discussions is that we cannot disentangle policies for food and energy from each other because these sectors are inextricably linked by water. The nexus actually has many dimensions: you can add health, safety, economic activity, environmental sustainability, and social justice to the list of things that we endeavor to control that are intricately connected to water.

Water is eroding the very foundations of the institutional silos that we have built to manage each of these important sectors of our society. Specialists in each sector are drawn into a politically organized framework and given a clear mandate to optimize the benefits to society that can be realized from each sector. Each one of these sectors is dependent on water. Each one of these sectors has an impact on water. Each one of these sectors is unaware of the impact that their interactions with water has on each and every other sector. The sum of benefits from independently managed sector optimization will inevitably be less than the sum of benefits that could be realized if the synergistic and antagonistic cumulative effects on the common-pool water resource were collectively managed.

Water management is fundamentally important to every agency, department, and level of government.

However, water flows downhill — both in physics and in politics. The actual truth about the temporal and spatial variability in water quantity and quality and the influence of human activities on this variability is not prominent in almost any decision-making process. Neglect of this essential truth is a risk that planners and policy makers are accustomed to. If any given plan or policy does not work out well as a result of too much, too little, or the wrong quality of water, then the failure can be attributed to a capricious environment.

We should never confuse the environment being complex with being capricious.

Given the right data, in the right place, at the right time we can disentangle this complexity and benefit from success rather than continue to suffer from failure in our policies and planning.

While it has always been true that decisions made without adequate data lead to unintended and adverse outcomes, this is especially true as we approach the limits for sustainable growth. The closer we get to these limits the more impactful each sector is on the success of every other sector. In my eBook The Value of Water Monitoring I devote an entire chapter to the topic of “Multi-objective Decision-Making for Justice and Sustainability.” In this chapter I make the argument that improvements in water monitoring are needed to enable decision-making at the scale of the watersheds that sustain us.

We have a choice to make.

We can either blunder our way through the 21st Century using trial and error to discover whether water will help us or hurt us in achieving our goals and objectives, OR we can put water monitoring in place that will enable effective collaboration and cooperation across all sectors in establishing realistic goals and objectives and adaptively managing a successful realization of desired outcomes.

What’s your choice? Are further investments in water monitoring a good idea? If not, why not?

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