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Building Robust Strategies For Sustainable Water Management Through Stakeholder-informed Scenario Development

World Water Congress 2015 Edinburgh Scotland
10. Management of water resources
Author(s): Irene Blanco-Gutiérrez
Paloma Esteve
Consuelo Varela-Ortega

Universidad Politécnica de Madrid1

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 10: Management of water resources,



Growing pressure on water resources is producing major impacts on the environmental, social and economic well-being in many parts of the world (OECD 2013). Designing creative and well-informed long-term strategies for sustainable water management is thus crucial to balance ecological and human needs. While this fact is uncontested, suitable approaches have still to be found. Looking into the future requires us to make assumptions about the different aspects that affect water resource use and development. One effective way to look into the future and to deal with uncertainty is through the development of scenarios (Berkhout et al., 2002; Swart et al., 2004). Scenario use has received worldwide significance in recent times playing an important role in the policy debate, particularly in climate change and environmental contexts (Nakicenovic and Swart, 2007; UNEP, 2007).

Different approaches for scenario development exist, but they are usually divided into: exploratory/descriptive scenarios and normative/backcasting scenarios (Borjeson et al., 2006). Exploratory or descriptive scenarios investigate how potential different futures could be realized under different plausible evolutions of socio-economic or policy conditions. On the other side, normative or backcasting scenarios fix an endpoint for the scenario time horizon and then construct the path needed to reach the desired outcome. Both approaches are complementary and many scholars have acknowledged the added value of combining them (Kok et al. 2011).

This paper presents a combination of participatory exploratory and normative (backcast) scenarios implemented in the Guadiana basin (Spain) to explore the future of water resources and to identify robust strategies for sustainable water management.


The methodology used in this paper was successfully tested in the EU project SCENES (Water Scenarios for Europe and for Neighbouring States). Exploratory scenarios were developed to describe the future of the Guadiana basin in 2050, and combined with backcast scenarios to identify sustainable robust strategies for water management (that is, effective in different socio-environmental contexts). Scenario development was done along a participatory process. In total, three stakeholder workshops were organized with 30-40 stakeholders' representatives in the Guadiana basin (Varela-Ortega et al., 2008).

Exploratory scenarios were built using storyline development and Fuzzy Cognitive Mapping (FCM) following the three steps below:

1- Describing the present. Stakeholders analyzed the present situation in the Guadiana basin.

2- Framing the future. Stakeholders developed narrative storylines about how the future of the basin might evolve, taking as a framework the global GEO-4 scenarios (UNEP, 2007) used in the SCENES project.

3- Creating FCM-based scenarios. The storylines developed by the stakeholders were further structured using the FCM technique. FCMs (Kosko, 1986) are semi-quantitative tools that permit to represent a given system and quantify the casual relations within the system using 'fuzzy' functions. A FCM was developed for each scenario.

Backcasts were developed using the exploratory scenarios as external scenarios (socio-environmental contexts), as explained in Van Vliet and Kok (2013). After analysing the different plausible futures (FCM-based scenarios), stakeholders agreed on a normative objective 'achieving the good ecological status of water bodies while maintaining the socio-economic viability of the water sector in the basin' (desired goal in 2050) and developed a backwards analysis to analyze how this goal could be realised given a specific socio-environmental context. This exercise included the identification of barriers, opportunities, milestones and actions, all with the final aim of achieving the desired goal.


Two scenarios were selected as the most plausible futures for the Guadiana basin: Sustainability Eventually (SE) and Economy First (EF).

The SE scenario defines a future in which sustainability is partially achieved at the end of 2050 as a consequence of a shift towards a more quality-oriented and competitive agriculture and a more participatory, bottom-up water management. The FCM that represent the SE scenario shows a system with a well-balanced equilibrium between environmental, economic and policy factors.

The EF scenario describes a future in which the state of water resources progressively deteriorates. Market forces and technological improvements will contribute to a more efficient water use and to a more competitive agriculture. The weak implementation of water policies and intensive agricultural production result in further degradation of water quality and water related ecosystems. The FCM built to describe the EF scenario shows a clear dominance of economic factors, as compared to environmental, social and policy factors.

The dynamic analysis of the two developed FCMs reflected that, in both scenarios, climate change and the increasing imbalance between water supply and demand are perceived as the biggest threats to the basin. However, whereas in the SE scenario the drivers of the system (e.g., application of the new EU Common Agricultural Policy, public participation, water monitoring) could contribute to close the supply-demand gap and promote environmental restoration, driving forces in the EF scenario (market liberalization, population and infrastructure increase, expansion of industry) might have opposite effects, increasing water demand and decreasing water quality.

The backcast exercise revealed a list of robust strategies that could be effective to achieve the desired goal in both SE and EF scenarios. These strategies include technological aspects (investments in water-save technologies), economic incentives (purchase of water rights) and governance and policy aspects (public participation, compliance with water policies). These strategies are valid for both scenarios but the EF scenario requires a shorter-term implementation of actions.


The scenarios developed in the Guadiana basin depict opposite future visions in terms of sustainability and economic developments. However, several strategies could be identified as robust to achieve the desired goal in 2050 under all perceived future visions. These strategies comprise technical, economic and policy aspects highlighting the need of an integrated approach.

This research demonstrated the great potential of participatory techniques for supporting water decision-making. The combination of participatory exploratory and normative scenarios permitted to identify robust strategies for sustainable water management that integrate stakeholder views and respond to the challenges of facing an uncertain future. The combined use of storylines, Fuzzy Cognitive Maps and backasting techniques proved to be an adequate triangulation method that ensures coherent and meaningful scenario development.

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9. van Vliet, M. and Kok, K. (2013) Combining backcasting and exploratory scenarios to develop robust water strategies in face of uncertain futures. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, DOI 10.1007/s11027-013-9479-6

10. Varela-Ortega, C., Esteve, P. and Carmona, G. (2008) Third drafts of storylines and conceptual models at the Regional and Pilot Area levels. The Guadiana case study. Deliverable DIA2.4. Scenes project. European Commission. 37 p.

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