A framework for process indicators to monitor for sustainable development: practice to an urban water system

A framework for process indicators to monitor for sustainable development: practice to an urban water system
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  A FRAMEWORK FOR PROCESS INDICATORS TO MONITORFOR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: PRACTICE TO AN URBANWATER SYSTEM ALI BAGHERI* and PEDER HJORTH Department of Water Resources Engineering, Lund Institute of Technology, Lund University, P.O. Box 118,S-221 00, Lund, Sweden(*author for correspondence, e-mail:; fax: +46-046-2224435; tel.: +46-046-2228134) (Received 24 May 2005; accepted 25 November 2005) Abstract. Although very often used, the concept of sustainable development has not yet been perceivedpragmatically. Due to its process nature, in this paper, we argue that sustainable development is a processin which the essential feedback loops, or Viability Loops as we name them, in the system in question arekept healthy and functional. This process deals with evolutionary changes with the end point not known inadvance. According to this perception, measurement of sustainable development does not make sense.Rather, we should look for the process indicators to monitor systems for sustainable development. Thepurpose of the paper is to develop a methodology to deal with monitoring systems for sustainabledevelopment and its practice in an urban water system. Using a system dynamics approach, the paperadopts a systemic monitoring framework based on the idea of  Viability Loops to define process indicatorsto monitor systems for sustainable development. To illustrate the application of the framework, itspractice in the urban water system of Tehran, the capital of Iran, is provided as an example. The exampleof the urban water supply system of Tehran is given as a case study, albeit with some unavailable data.Here, four typical viability loops are discussed. The results of this application show that the flows of informative signals are lacking. Adopting the process indicators, we can see the gaps between the publicperceptions of water abundance, the costs of water provision and energy utilizations, and what is going onin the reality are getting wider. That indicates that the viability loops are not functional enough to produceeffective changes to offset the reinforcing mechanisms. The sustainable development of the system isimpaired due to the persistence of those reinforcing mechanisms. Key words: evolutionary processes, measurement, monitoring, process indicators, sustainable develop-ment, system, urban water, viability loops. 1. Introduction The major challenge in dealing with sustainability is to develop a means for prac-ticing the paradigm in everyday planning and management of a society. It calls forproponents of human, economic, as well as environmental concerns to join togetherto provide an everlasting life for the human species in the global ecosystem. To thisend, we need a tool that helps us recognize the synergies and constraints among Readers should send their comments on this paper to: within 3 months of pub-lication of this issue.Environment, Development and Sustainability (2007) 9:143–161 Ó Springer 2006DOI 10.1007/s10668-005-9009-0  nature, economic activities, and people, a tool or methodology that informs, andemerges from, a thoughtful practice.Since sustainable development is related to the whole ecosystem, we must makeclear that when we talk about the sustainability of a particular part of a system, suchas sustainability of water resources or urban water systems, we actually mean howthose sub-systems behave relative to the requirements for sustainable development of the whole ecosystem. In this respect, much that has been said or written aboutsustainable development is partial and incomplete. For instance, Bruce (1992) con-siders sustainability based on financial sustainability implying that, in order toachieve a sustainable financial system, all the costs in a water resources systemshould be recoverable. Falkenmark defines sustainability based on the role waterplays in development. She suggests various conditions for sustainability. Soilpermeability and water retention capacity have to be secured to allow rainfall toinfiltrate and to be used in the production of biomass on a large enough scale for self-sufficiency. Drinkable water has to be available. There has to be enough water topermit general hygiene. Fish and other aquatic biomass have to be preserved andremain edible (Falkenmark, 1988).Attempting to integrate water resources systems into the other parts of the society,an ASCE Task Committee proposed the following definition (ASCE, 1998): ‘‘Sustainable water resource systems are those designed and managed to fully con-tribute to the objectives of society, now and in the future, while maintaining theirecological, environmental and hydrological integrity.’’  Pearce (1993) argues thatsustainability in water resources systems requires the current consumption of freshwater not to pass on directly (as impaired water quality due to pollution) orindirectly (as the lost opportunities) costs to future generations.Sustainability has been regarded in other water related areas as well, e.g., Kandiah(1990) examined the issues of effective water-quality management and their relationsto sustainable agricultural development. Niu and Harris (1996) studied the rela-tionships between economic development and environmental protection, whereissues of system sustainability were analyzed. Simonovic (1996a, b) developed adecision support system for sustainable management of water resources. Xia and Hu(1997) studied water-related environmental problems and their relations to thesustainability of water resources systems with the provision of a case study for theSanhua Region, China. Plate (1993) and Suzuki (1998) discussed the challenges toscience and engineering in terms of sustainable development for water resourcessystems. Additional reports of research in this area can be found in Haimes (1992),Kundzewicz (1997), Falkenmark (1997), Loucks (1997, 2000), Gutierrez-Martin andDahab (1998), and Huang and Xia (2001).The scholars referred to above tend to be faced with uncertainty over what theconcept of sustainable development means, and resort to reductionist thinking whendescribing how sustainable development is to come about. Although they advocate aholistic view in the management of complex systems, they seem to have difficulties inabandoning cornerstones of ‘‘modern’’ science as for instance the ideas of predict-ability, optimality, and equilibria.144 A. BAGHERI AND P. HJORTH  Contrary to these scientists, we argue that sustainable development is aboutprocesses able to cope with uncertainty, complexity, incompleteness, and conflict.From that perspective, there can never be only one kind of sustainable development.We agree with Cary (1998) when he states that: ‘‘Sustainability is not a fixed ideal, but an evolutionary process of improving the manage-ment of systems, through improved understanding and knowledge. Analogous toDarwin’s species evolution, the process is non-deterministic with the end point not knownin advance.’’ Improved understanding and knowledge comes from developing new opportunities,testing and evaluating the results. To help us to identify new opportunities and toevaluate their impacts, we need a set of efficient indicators.The purpose of the paper is to develop a methodology to deal with monitoringsystems for sustainable development and its practice in an urban water system. Usinga system dynamics approach and considering the process nature of sustainabledevelopment, the paper adopts the idea of  Viability Loops (Bagheri and Hjorth,2006; Hjorth and Bagheri, 2006) to define process indicators to monitor an urbanwater system for sustainable development. Finally, the framework is applied to theurban water system of Tehran – the capital of Iran – as an illustrative example. Theexample of the urban water supply system of Tehran is given as a case study, albeitwith some unavailable data. 2. The idea of viability loops We believe that H. L. Mencken was right when he said that ‘‘ Every complex problemhas a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.’’  Thus, in our work, we have tried toheed to the advice provided by Albert Einstein, namely ‘‘ to make things as simple as possible, but not simpler. ’’ As Holling (2000) points out, sustainable development andmanagement of global and regional resources is not an ecological problem, nor aneconomic one, nor a social one. It is a combination of all three. And yet actions tointegrate all three typically have short-circuited one or more. Many scientists areperplexed by the apparent complexity of the concept of sustainable development. Itis seen as something we seem not to understand because there apparently are largenumbers of interacting elements. Here, we follow Holling (2000) and promote an-other alternative view, suggesting that such complexity may be in the eye of thebeholder, and that most of the ‘‘large number of interacting elements’’ may be, infact, the consequence of a smaller number of controlling processes. It is this latterview to understanding the smaller number of controlling processes that opens a lineof deep enquiry about complex evolving systems.In any complex system, some kind of self-organizing mechanisms are working tokeep the system in balance according to the stocks of resources and carrying capacityof the system. In terms of the system dynamics approach, the critical balancing ornegative feedback loops in a system need to self-correct the system by adjusting145MONITORING SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT  reinforcing or positive feedback loops. The key elements in those critical balancingmechanisms, which Hjorth and Bagheri (2006) called Viability Loops , are thedevelopment and the flow of information/knowledge and/or matter/energy to keepthe system in balance.Regarding the concept of  Viability Loops , we consider sustainable development asa process in which those loops remain intact and functional. Planning for sustainabledevelopment is, hence, to identify the viability loops and to make/keep them,functional (Hjorth and Bagheri, 2006).Care should be taken that not every negative feedback loop can be considered as aviability loop. Not only do some negative feedback mechanisms support balancingof systems, but they may also enhance the reinforcing mechanisms. For instance, in a Fixes that back fire archetype (Figure 1a) fixes in the negative feedback loop allowthe problem symptom to be alleviated; while, those fixes result in the promotion of the reinforcing loop and consequently the emergence of unintended consequenceswhich eventually worsen the problem symptom. This problem is especially prevalentin slowly changing systems where linear thinking may work in the short-term whiletriggering serious problems in the long run. Obviously, this kind of feedback is notconsidered as a functional part of a viability loop.On the other hand, adding an information link into the archetype to build up areal perception of the problem can act as a viability loop (VL), which will hamper thegrowth or decline due to the reinforcing mechanism (Figure 1b). 3. A review of sustainability indicators in urban water systems There are several methods for the evaluation of urban water systems regarding theirsustainability. Some researchers try to capture sustainability in a single indicator e.g., Problem SymptomFixUnintendedConsequences+-++RB Problem SymptomFixUnintendedConsequences+-++RBReal Perception of the Problem + - VL – There is no Viability Loop  to control thereinforcing mechanism– A Viability Loop  is added to control the reinforcingmechanism (a) (b) Figure 1. The difference between a negative feedback loop and a viability loop. 146 A. BAGHERI AND P. HJORTH  through exergy analysis or economic analysis. However, other frequently usedmethodologies, such as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) or system analysis, includemultiple indicators (Balkema et al., 2002).Using a LCA based procedure, Lundin and Morrison (2002) developed Envi-ronmental Sustainability Indicators (ESI) for urban water systems. The primarycontext for environmental sustainability is the pressure-state-response feedbackloop, which accepts that environment is an interactive system and defines appro-priate indicators following from the determination of the critical aspects of thesystem and its interactions (Ashley and Hopkinson, 2002). Lundin and Morrison(2002) applied their model in two case studies – Gothenburg (Sweden) and KingWilliam’s Town (South Africa) – by dividing the urban water system into fourenvironmental and technical sub-systems. The indicators they suggested are mainlyrelated to the environmental aspects; more over, they introduce relative levels of environmental sustainability for the urban water infrastructure. Seemingly, theirmodel is more appropriate to assess the performance of the urban water system ata – as they indicate – company level.Following a similar methodology, numerous articles have suggested different ESIsfor assessing the environmental sustainability of urban water systems e.g., Lundinet al. (2000), Crettaz et al. (1999), Emmerson et al. (1995), Roelveld et al. (1997),Tillman et al. (1998), Hellstro ¨m and Ka ¨rrman (1997), Sonesson et al. (2000), Ashleyand Hopkinson (2002), and Ashley et al. (1999).To assess the sustainability of wastewater treatment systems Balkema et al. (2002)developed a methodology, similar to LCA, but structured into three phases andusing a system approach with a multi-dimensional set of sustainability assessmentindicators categorized in four groups: functional, economic, environmental, andsocial-cultural. Seemingly stuck in the old paradigm, they found the concept of sustainability to be in conflict with the concept of performance. Therefore, theyclaim, it is necessary to solve a multi-objective optimization problem in order to finda set of solutions that strike a compromise between the conflicting indicators. Atbest, we think, this method can be used to assess a system performance specifically ata plant scale.Hellstro ¨m et al. (2000) proposed a set of sustainability criteria divided into fivemain categories: (1) health and hygiene, (2) social-cultural, (3) environmental, (4)economic, and (5) functional and technical, for each category they defined a numberof sub-criteria and suggested quantifiable indicators for every sub-criterion.Although they emphasized that the proposed set of criteria and indicators do notinclude all possible aspects of sustainability, they applied that model to evaluatesustainability in urban water systems in five typical cities in Sweden within theSwedish research program ‘‘Sustainable Urban Water Management.’’ Althoughtheir model regards the social and economic dimensions as well as the environ-mental aspects, it is still partial and more likely to assess the performance of anisolated urban water system instead of its contribution to sustainable development.147MONITORING SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT
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