Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

A meta-model of socio-hydrological phenomena for sustainable water management

Abstract

Overemphasizing technological solutions in water management without considering the broader systems perspective can result in unintended consequences. For example, infrastructure interventions for drought adaptation may inadvertently increase flood risk, illustrating a socio-hydrological phenomenon. Here we propose a systems meta-model that reveals the complex mechanisms and feedback loops underlying the critical human–water interactions. We show that the unintended outcomes of water management decisions result from the lack of integration and coordination of the feedback loops. The insights highlight the importance of considering environmental capacity in water management, as well as the necessity for integrated assessment and coordinated solutions for long-term sustainability.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type

from$1.95

to$39.95

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: CHWS meta-model.
Fig. 2: Analysis of socio-hydrological phenomena with the CHWS meta-model.

References

  1. Dodson, J. The global infrastructure turn and urban practice. Urban Policy Res. 35, 87–92 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Leck, H. & Simon, D. Fostering multiscalar collaboration and co-operation for effective governance of climate change adaptation. Urban Stud. 50, 1221–1238 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Di Baldassarre, G. et al. Sociohydrology: scientific challenges in addressing the sustainable development goals. Water Resour. Res. 55, 6327–6355 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Kandasamy, J. et al. Socio-hydrologic drivers of the pendulum swing between agricultural development and environmental health: a case study from Murrumbidgee River Basin, Australia. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 18, 1027–1041 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  5. Celio, M., Scott, C. A. & Giordano, M. Urban–agricultural water appropriation: the Hyderabad, India case. Geogr. J. 176, 39–57 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Meadows, D. H. Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008).

  7. Bahaddin, B. et al. in World Environmental and Water Resources Congress 2018: Watershed Management, Irrigation and Drainage, and Water Resources Planning and Management (ed. Kamojjala, S.) 130–140 (American Society of Civil Engineers, 2018).

  8. Cumming, G. S. et al. Implications of agricultural transitions and urbanization for ecosystem services. Nature 515, 50–57 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Han, S., Tian, F., Liu, Y. & Duan, X. Socio-hydrological perspectives of the co-evolution of humans and groundwater in Cangzhou, North China Plain. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 21, 3619–3633 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Di Baldassarre, G., Kooy, M., Kemerink, J. S. & Brandimarte, L. Towards understanding the dynamic behaviour of floodplains as human–water systems. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 17, 3235–3244 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Kreibich, H. et al. Adaptation to flood risk: results of international paired flood event studies. Earths Future 5, 953–965 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Di Baldassarre, G., Martinez, F., Kalantari, Z. & Viglione, A. Drought and flood in the Anthropocene: feedback mechanisms in reservoir operation. Earth Syst. Dyn. 8, 225–233 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Kates, R. W., Colten, C. E., Laska, S., Leatherman, S. P. & Clark, W. C. Reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: a research perspective. Cityscape 9, 5–22 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  14. Gohari, A. et al. Water transfer as a solution to water shortage: a fix that can backfire. J. Hydrol. 491, 23–39 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Zhang, Z., Hu, H., Tian, F., Yao, X. & Sivapalan, M. Groundwater dynamics under water-saving irrigation and implications for sustainable water management in an oasis: Tarim River Basin of western China. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 18, 3951–3967 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  16. Müller, M. F., Müller‐Itten, M. C. & Gorelick, S. M. How Jordan and Saudi Arabia are avoiding a tragedy of the commons over shared groundwater. Water Resour. Res. 53, 5451–5468 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Costanza, R. et al. Quality of life: an approach integrating opportunities, human needs, and subjective well-being. Ecol. Econ. 61, 267–276 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Jaffee, D. Levels of Socio-economic Development Theory (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998).

  19. Seppelt, R. & Cumming, G. S. Humanity’s distance to nature: time for environmental austerity? Landsc. Ecol. 31, 1645–1651 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Cumming, G. S. & von Cramon-Taubadel, S. Linking economic growth pathways and environmental sustainability by understanding development as alternate social–ecological regimes. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 9533–9538 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Garrick, D. et al. Rural water for thirsty cities: a systematic review of water reallocation from rural to urban regions. Environ. Res. Lett. 14, 43003 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Collados, C. & Duane, T. P. Natural capital and quality of life: a model for evaluating the sustainability of alternative regional development paths. Ecol. Econ. 30, 441–460 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Hoekstra, A. Y. & Wiedmann, T. O. Humanity’s unsustainable environmental footprint. Science 344, 1114–1117 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Foster, S. et al. Impact of irrigated agriculture on groundwater-recharge salinity: a major sustainability concern in semi-arid regions. Hydrogeol. J. 26, 2781–2791 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Keesstra, S. et al. The superior effect of nature based solutions in land management for enhancing ecosystem services. Sci. Total Environ. 610, 997–1009 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Whyte, J. et al. A research agenda on systems approaches to infrastructure. Civ. Eng. Environ. Syst. https://doi.org/10.1080/10286608.2020.1827396 (2020).

  27. Di Baldassarre, G. et al. An interdisciplinary research agenda to explore the unintended consequences of structural flood protection. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 22, 5629–5637 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  28. Hamann, M., Biggs, R. & Reyers, B. Mapping social–ecological systems: identifying ‘green-loop’ and ‘red-loop’ dynamics based on characteristic bundles of ecosystem service use. Glob. Environ. Change 34, 218–226 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Puchol-Salort, P., Boskovic, S., Dobson, B., van Reeuwijk, M. & Mijic, A. Water neutrality framework for systemic design of new urban developments. Water Res. 219, 118583 (2022).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Liu, L., Dobson, B. & Mijic, A. Optimisation of urban–rural nature-based solutions for integrated catchment water management. J. Environ. Manag. 329, 117045 (2023).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. Dobson, B. et al. Predicting catchment suitability for biodiversity at national scales. Water Res. 15, 118764 (2022).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Liu, L., Dobson, B. & Mijic, A. Hierarchical systems integration for coordinated urban–rural water quality management at a catchment scale. Sci. Total Environ. 806, 150642 (2022).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  33. Dobson, B. & Mijic, A. Protecting rivers by integrating supply–wastewater infrastructure planning and coordinating operational decisions. Environ. Res. Lett. 15, 114025 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Stip, C. et al. Water Infrastructure Resilience: Examples of Dams, Wastewater Treatment Plants, and Water Supply and Sanitation Systems (World Bank, 2019).

  35. Cassivi, A., Johnston, R., Waygood, E. O. D. & Dorea, C. C. Access to drinking water: time matters. J. Water Health 16, 661–666 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  36. Dickens, C. et al. Evaluating the global state of ecosystems and natural resources: within and beyond the SDGs. Sustainability 12, 7381 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Rogge, N. Undesirable specialization in the construction of composite policy indicators: the Environmental Performance Index. Ecol. Indic. 23, 143–154 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Seekell, D. et al. Resilience in the global food system. Environ. Res. Lett. 12, 25010 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Freistein, K. Effects of indicator use: a comparison of poverty measuring instruments at the World Bank. J. Comp. Policy Anal. Res. Pract. 18, 366–381 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. James, S. L., Gubbins, P., Murray, C. J. L. & Gakidou, E. Developing a comprehensive time series of GDP per capita for 210 countries from 1950 to 2015. Popul. Health Metr. 10, 1–12 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Wackernagel, M., Lin, D., Evans, M., Hanscom, L. & Raven, P. Defying the footprint oracle: implications of country resource trends. Sustainability 11, 2164 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Mekonnen, M. M. & Hoekstra, A. Y. The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 15, 1577–1600 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank J. Giambona for improving the readability of the paper. This research was funded by the CASYWat (Systems Water Management Framework for Catchment Scale Processes) UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) project (grant NE/S009248/1) awarded to A.M. The President’s PhD scholarships provided by the Imperial College London funded L.L. B.D. acknowledges financial support from the CAMELLIA (Community Water Management for a Liveable London) NERC-funded project (NE/S003495/1).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

A.M. conceived the idea and designed the meta-model. A.M., L.L., J.O’K., B.D. and K.P.C. designed and carried out analysis and developed proposed principles. A.M. and L.L. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the findings and contributed to the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to A. Mijic.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Peer review

Peer review information

Nature Sustainability thanks Giuliano Di Baldassarre, Elisabeth Krueger and Fuqiang Tian for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Springer Nature or its licensor (e.g. a society or other partner) holds exclusive rights to this article under a publishing agreement with the author(s) or other rightsholder(s); author self-archiving of the accepted manuscript version of this article is solely governed by the terms of such publishing agreement and applicable law.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Mijic, A., Liu, L., O’Keeffe, J. et al. A meta-model of socio-hydrological phenomena for sustainable water management. Nat Sustain 7, 7–14 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-023-01240-3

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-023-01240-3

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing