On Prerequisites for the Application of Sustainable Development Indicators in Urban Water Management

A Water and Marine Sustainability Month Feature Article

Čertovka River in Praha CZ - Original Image

[tweetmeme http://www.URL.com] Ulrika Palme of the Department of Energy and Environment, Chalmers University of Technology has recently issued a paper focusing on the pre-requisites for successful urban water management.  A short abstract of the contents of this paper: Semi-structured interviews with 47 key actors were conducted in Swedish water utilities on why Sustainable Development Indicators (SDIs) are or are not used. Important influencing aspects identified included organizational inertia, social capital, the national water sector and authorities. Divergent views of SD and indicators appear to hinder SDI initiatives. Possible explanations are that: (a) not all actors look at decision-making as the kind of rational process the focus on indicators implies, and (b), Swedish urban water systems are widely regarded as sustainable. The water sector itself and regulation are identified as the strongest potential drivers for increased use of SDIs.

The introduction to her excellent paper reads:

Over the past 15–20 years, sustainable development (SD) has become a generally acknowledged, though distant and elusive, goal for all levels of society to strive towards. Interim targets, exemplified by the United Nations Millennium Development Goals  are often used to make the objectives specific and concrete. Furthermore, to monitor and assess progress towards the targets and help steer development in the desired direction, sustainable development indicators (SDIs) have been developed for use at many different levels: internationally, for example, in the United Nations  , EEA , and OECD ; nationally in several countries, including Sweden  and the UK ; and at the community level. Initiatives at the community level include the example of the Boston Indicator Project , in which local individuals are involved in SDI development, as well as initiatives on SDIs to be applied within public administrative bodies . Finally, SDIs are also frequently applied within business organizations, where one of the most influential actors, and a useful source of information, is the Global Reporting Initiative . Water supply and sanitation are services fundamental to developed societies and indicators covering water are included in most sets of SDIs. From community to international levels, common examples of such SDIs are the percentage of the population with access to drinking water and sanitation, water extraction (sometimes in relation to available water resources), water reuse, and levels of phosphorus and nitrogen in surface waters. At the organizational level, generally speaking, indicators capturing water issues are primarily those covering water consumption and emissions to water. There are also numerous recommendations regarding sets of SDIs designed specifically for use in water utilities, i.e., for urban water systems. These sets describe the activities of water utilities (water supply and sanitation) in more detail, capturing aspects such as resource use, emissions, ecosystem impact, reliability, robustness, flexibility, cost of operations, investment in innovation, research and development, health and safety, participation, and community development. There are, however, few reports dealing with the practical application of SDIs in water organizations around the world.

This scarcity of reports on the application of SDIs in managing urban water systems prompted the project described here, to investigate, through in-depth field studies, the preconditions for sustainable development information systems (including SDIs) in Swedish water utilities. This paper reports and analyses the results from these field studies, to explore the key factors influencing the application of SDIs in Swedish water utilities by identifying the drivers for and barriers to their use. The paper adopts a social constructivist approach to research methodology and focuses on describing the use of indicators in an organization from the perspective of the various actors constituting the organization. While this research is relevant primarily to Swedish circumstances, preliminary discussions of the results with an international audience has shown that many of the conclusions have wider validity for planning and decision making in urban water management. This introductory section proceeds by describing the rationale used in examining sustainable development indicators, and also gives a brief account of the Swedish water sector. Subsequent sections describe the methodology used for the field studies and present and discuss the results.

1.1. Sustainable Development Indicators

Within the overarching rationale of using indicators to guide development away from unsustainable trajectories towards more sustainable ones, SDIs can serve different (sometimes overlapping) functions:

  • depicting current conditions, evaluating various management actions for the future, and warning of impending changes,
  • planning and communication,
  • learning, structuring understanding, and conceptualization, and
  • expanding, correcting, and integrating worldviews.

Notably, indicators, generally speaking, are routinely used for planning and control in organizations. The functions of indicators described in the management literature primarily correspond to those in the first two bullet points above, although the vocabulary is different: accounting, reporting, bench-marking and management by objectives. For a review of functions of indicators, including SDIs, see e.g., Palme. An aspect of indicators often disregarded, or at least not explicitly mentioned, is that they are linked to a view of decision-making in organizations as a rational process . Rational decision-making, according to Hatch , Thompson and Tuden and Thompson, is characterized by agreement within the organization on the goals to be achieved as well as on methods that should be used to reach these goals. As sustainable development issues are often characterized by high levels of uncertainty and conflicting goals, such agreement is often not at hand, which implies an inherent contradiction in the concept of SDIs. Similarly, the kind of rational thinking implicit in much of the sustainable development literature is based on a linear view of strategy development, emphasizing top-down processes, planning and goal achievement. This, however, is not necessarily how decisions are made in organizations. If, instead, strategy is regarded as adaptive (or emergent), with bottom-up processes complementing the top-down processes, planning is still possible and indicators are still potentially useful; However, the view of strategy as adaptive, constantly responding to unexpected events and a changing external environment, makes indicators less valuable and reliable. Furthermore, the view of strategy as interpretative leaves little room for indicators: the surrounding world is regarded as so unpredictable, and the interpretation of it so subjective, that strategic intent can only be executed through symbolic action. Mintzberg elaborates further on the connection between uncertainty and strategy, arguing that a rational model of strategy is relevant for situations with low complexity and low pace of change. This further highlights the inherent contradiction in the concept of SDIs as this description of reality is not typical for most sustainable development decision-making contexts.

The paradoxical nature of using SDIs in decision-making and strategy supports the idea that promoting learning and structuring understanding is possibly the most important function for SDIs, as argued by e.g., Rydin et al. and Innes and Booher. The intended function of an SDI, along with its intended users—providers and receivers of information—will affect what information is carried by the indicator, and to what extent this information is aggregated. As described by Mitchell, there are two main approaches to indicator design: (1) indices where information is aggregated into one single variable, e.g., the index of sustainable economic welfare (see Mitchell for more examples), and (2) sets of indicators, including many variables, that in their entirety capture the various dimensions of the SD concept.

The purpose of indices within an organization may be explicit, but single indicators making up a set of SDIs, as described above, may be no more than a conventional performance (or service) indicator when taken out of the set. For example, a common indicator in the water sector is mg/l of nitrogen in the effluent from the wastewater treatment plant. This is normally regarded as an environmental performance indicator rather than an SDI (i.e., an indicator used to monitor, assess and steer progress towards sustainable development), but certainly the emissions to water of nitrogen are highly relevant from a sustainable development perspective. Because of the difficulties at the organizational level of distinguishing SDIs from various (key) performance indicators, it was decided in this work to consider a very broad range of indicators, including all that have been recommended and/or applied in the water organizations studied to convey information concerning any aspect of sustainable development and which form part of a set of indicators that in its entirety also captures other aspects of sustainable development. The definition used is deliberately broad so as to include all relevant information. Furthermore, SDIs are not regarded as necessarily novel but include developments of existing indicator sets.

1.2. The Swedish Water Sector

The Swedish water sector is entirely public, and its constituent organizations are either publicly (municipally) owned companies or parts of local public administrations. Altogether, 99% of the sector’s costs are covered by tariffs, smaller municipalities sometimes subsidizing service provision out of local taxes. The activities of Swedish water organizations are supervised by a range of authorities, which implies a great deal of mandatory reporting. At the local level, municipal committees for environment and health are responsible for drinking water quality, water protection and, in the case of small plants, permits to discharge treated sewage. The County Administrative Board is responsible for water protection at the regional level, and issues discharge permits for most plants. The central supervisory agency for drinking water quality is the National Food Administration, while the Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for the protection of water resources. Discharge permits for the largest plants are issued by the Regional Environmental Courts . By and large, the design of Swedish urban water systems follows what Wilderer  calls “the classical concept of urban water supply and sanitation,” according to which the flow is linear from the source (the water reservoir) to the sink (the receiving water) and the main purpose of wastewater treatment is conversion and destruction of materials rather than recovery. However, the aim of increased nutrient recycling is set forth in the Swedish Environmental Objectives, according to which phosphorus should be recycled from urban to rural areas without risking human health or the environment. This is part of an overarching strategy for achieving resource-efficient material cycles free from hazardous substances.

Read the full article here in PDF format.

Citation: Palme, U. On Prerequisites for the Application of Sustainable Development Indicators in Urban Water Management. Sustainability 2010, 2, 92-116

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