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| Sustainable decision-making for urban water systems

Good-quality water and sanitation systems are essential to Europe’s town and cities, helping to ensure the health of the population. But these systems are huge, complex and costly to revamp. Nowadays, municipalities charged with overhauling often very old water and sanitation systems have to make very difficult decisions that must take account of economic, social, legislative and financial issues. An EU-backed project called Watertime has produced web-based tools and a good practice guide to help local authorities and other stakeholders make sustainable decisions about the future of their water and sanitation systems.
Sustainable decision-making for urban water systems
Europe’s urban areas could not function properly without their water and sanitation systems. These huge labyrinths of pipes and sewers – and related pumping and filtering plants – play a vital role in maintaining public health and in the development of industry. However, many of these systems were installed in the 19th century and need revamping to meet the demands of modern society. But public bodies that have to plan system overhauls have a challenge on their hands. There are huge technical and infrastructure issues to consider, along with the demands of a raft of EU legislation relating to water and sanitation, including the Water Framework Directive and the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive. Decisions also have to be made in the light of privatisation, an issue which has dominated the European water industry since the late 1980s.

Guiding decisions

The Watertime project set out to explore these issues and develop tools to support those who have to spend millions of euros to improve their water systems. The project team was drawn from Spain, Italy, the UK, Germany, Finland and Hungary, and included experts in economics, political science, the environment, law and water institutions. They studied current decision-making practices and long-term historical experiences in 29 European cities. The team then set about producing good practice recommendations and a decision-support tool that is accessible via the internet.

“We felt it was necessary to support municipalities as they face making enormously costly decisions about the future of water systems – they also have to cope with political ramifications and must deal with a set of options relating to privatisation that many are unfamiliar with,” explains Dr David Hall, Watertime project coordinator.

The case study cities selected by the project team covered all points of the European compass, including accession states. “We selected cities which were known to have gone through some kind of decision-making process related to their water systems over the past 20 years,” says Dr Hall. “These cities are actually quite untypical because not much has changed in the majority of European urban areas for many, many years.”

The project team examined the key drivers that influenced decision-making in the 29 cities. “In each example, episodes of decision-making were identified by the researchers, and these were analysed in terms the different factors and actors involved, the sequence of events, the options considered and the decision taken,” explains Dr Hall.

Watertime also examined the historical context in which decisions were made, using what the project team called the “City in Time” analysis. City in Time helped the researchers to analyse common features and differences in the case study cities, and assess the long-term development of water supply and sanitation services.

Good practice

One of Watertime’s key outputs has been a set of good practice recommendations (GPRs), based on the case study findings and extra research conducted in other countries (for example, the team looked at regulation issues in the USA).

The project research revealed that many municipalities were making decisions based heavily on the requirements of their finances, but without a clear understanding of the possible impact of the options they were adopting. To counter this, a lot of the GPRs focus on helping decision-makers understand the potential risks and opportunities they face.

“We have tried to identify procedural aspects of decision-making that will improve a municipality’s ability to understand and appreciate the possible consequences of their decisions,” continues Dr Hall. “And the GPRs are written in a clear, straightforward way which should encourage people to use them.”

The team has produced 42 GPRs that are accessible via the project website. They can be used in conjunction with Watertime’s other key result – its web-based decision-making model.

Model behaviour

Originally, the project team looked into providing a mechanistic model which would allow users to input various parameters before receiving answers. “We decided quite quickly that a mechanistic model was neither desirable nor feasible – especially as these decisions are essentially political and democratic in nature and cannot be substituted by mechanistic calculation,” says Dr Hall.

Instead, the project decided to convert an existing decision-making model called Macbeth. Originally designed for use in public consultation exercises, Macbeth gave the team a way of ensuring that the political and democratic dimension was not overlooked. The model works by allowing people to input their options against specified, weighted criteria. Macbeth does not churn out a ‘right’ answer, rather it suggests a path forward based on the inputs and weightings selected by the user.

Normally Macbeth is used in public meetings and requires an expert to be present to use it. In a major innovation, Watertime has been able to adapt the model so it can be used via the internet. Municipalities and relevant stakeholders can now go to the Watertime website and use the model by inputting their own parameters and weightings.

“This is the first time Macbeth or a similar model has been made available on the web in this way – it’s a significant technical development,” says Dr Hall. In addition to the model, content and background information, the website also provides e-forum facilities to allow people to consult on plans and prospective decisions.

Usability has also been enhanced by developing the website and model in 20 European languages.


  • Dr David Hall
    Director, Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU)
    University of Greenwich
    London SE10 9LS
    United Kingdom
    Tel: +44 208 331 9933
    Fax: +44 208 331 8665

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