Opinion: New weapons for water management

By Gareth James Lloyd, Oluf Zejlund Jessen 14 October 2016

Boat merchants along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by: Mickey Bo / CC BY-NC-ND

In many countries climatic variability and change is experienced in the form of more frequent, severe and less predictable flood and drought events. This situation complicates the lives of those who need to plan for and manage water as part of their job, such as agricultural and industrial producers, local authorities, water utilities, power companies, and river management organizations. Increasingly, people working in these areas are looking to adopt and apply tools and techniques that can better support their work. One such example is the use of something called decision support systems, or DSSs, which, as the name suggests, to help people make informed decisions about what to do, what not to do, and when.

These systems come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they are basically computer-based information systems that support business or organizational decision-making activities. DSSs serve the management, operations and planning levels of an organization and help people make choices about problems that may be rapidly changing and not easily specified in advance. In the world of water, DSSs have been evolving over the past 10 years and are typically used to better understand river regimes, allowing the analysis of various development and disaster scenarios. Stakeholder cooperation can often be improved by making the decision-making process more transparent and fact-based than might otherwise be the case.

This figure shows how a group of stakeholders can get together and agree on exactly what they want the DSS to be able to do. This typically involves agreeing on various data and other planning considerations, how information needs to be disseminated and to whom, as well as for what decision making purposes. There is an opportunity to play around with different scenarios that, for example, may include changes in population, land use, rainfall and infrastructure on water availability.

These kinds of systems are already being used in river basins as diverse as the Nile, Zambezi, Rio Grande and Lower Mekong, where it is possible to integrate various social, economic, physical and environmental planning parameters to simultaneously take into account the different users and uses of water, as well as accounting for variations in availability due to climate change.

A great example of an ongoing initiative that is very much at the cutting-edge of the DSS field is the project currently being undertaken by an alphabet soup consortium of partners including the United Nations Environment Program, International Water Association, DHI and Global Environment Facility. Despite its rather uninteresting name — the Flood and Drought Management Tools Project — the activities being undertaken are extremely interesting. Building on the best of DSS thinking to date, the aim is to harness technological advances, such as those in climate and hydraulic modelling, real-time data, satellite technology and cloud computing, to take DSSs to the next level.

Recognizing the importance of developing something that is completely geared toward addressing user demands, the project’s partners include a diverse group of stakeholders linked to the River Volta in West Africa, Lake Victoria in East Africa and Chao Phraya River basin in Thailand.

Put into practice

The Chao Phraya basin in Thailand is one example of a basin where extreme events have influenced the planning practices. In 2011 Thailand suffered one of its worst ever disasters, as heavy monsoon rains in the upper part of the Chao Phraya basin resulted in historic water levels and widespread flooding with large human and monumental economic losses.

The impact on the industrial sector was significant as most of the flood defenses were designed to withstand “normal” seasonal flooding, and there were no operational plans linking risk estimation of extreme events with evacuation or emergency plans. In other words, the system was designed to be resilient toward a certain level of flooding but not anticipating or evaluating the risk for significant changes.

Today, several flood forecasting and flood management DSSs are in operation in Thailand and there is a very strong focus on risk reduction and flood resilient solutions considering the climate variability and change. This is an example of how the changing climate and extreme events can promote more sustainable and resilient tools and management practices.

Floods and droughts are unavoidable, and the increased frequency and duration of these events that many countries have encountered in recent years can be expected to increase further. However, experience has shown that with the right information and careful planning it is possible to significantly reduce the related risks and impacts. In this era of Sustainable Development Goals, where many countries are going to be looking to make significant improvement to the way they deal with water, DSSs are set to become increasingly important weapons in the fight for sustainable water management.

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About the authors

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Gareth James Lloyd

Gareth James Lloyd works as senior advisor at UNEP-DHI Partnership, a United Nations Environment Programme collaboration center on water and the environment. Based in Denmark, but with an international focus, his portfolio includes U.N. work linked to the Sustainable Development Goals, technology transfer to developing countries and serious gaming. He has degrees in environmental science and environmental policy.


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Oluf Zejlund Jessen

Oluf Zejlund Jessen works as a project manager at DHI with a focus on international projects related to water management and climate change resilience. He is currently team leader for the global UNEP implemented project Flood and Drought Management Tools aimed at developing tools supporting decision makers with the inclusion of flood, drought and climate change events into existing planning methods. His international experience includes a large number of projects within Africa, Asia and Europe.


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