Systems thinking for Urban Water Systems

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Systems thinking for water systems

By Dr. Mohanasundar Radhakrishnan

What is lost in an urban water system? The answer is obvious when you look at what flows in and out of these urban water networks, it is water. Some might say money and some might say energy. Yes, this is true but is not the whole truth. This training is about finding out what is lost from an urban water system by looking beyond water and looking in the urban systems to track the lost water and the other elements that are being lost. The training touches upon the three prime movers of the urban water utility, namely engineering, management and strategic planning. The place, proportion and play of this trinity in an urban water utility can be ascertained only by a thorough understanding of the urban system that is served by the water utility. This can shed light on what is actually gained and lost through urban water systems.

We the engineers and managers of urban water utilities are trained to ascertain the problem, quantify the impact, find out why it happened and devise ways to minimise or eliminate the problem. Quantification has always been the guiding principle, the means and the end in this endeavour. The water balance methods in their original or modified form used all over the world follow this logic and has proved to be a success in estimating the quantity of non-revenue water and formulating actions to reduce the losses in terms of water and revenue. The training starts by introducing the conventional water loss assessment methods to the urban water engineers and managers; the various elements of a water distribution system comprising physical, conceptual and design aspects; and, water loss management measures. Understanding and analysing these engineering aspects of the water supply system would create a comfort zone from which the engineer can start the process of identifying and minimising losses.

Managing the water losses and reducing the risks in the urban system are the outcomes of water system understanding. Understanding the systems leads to the identification of various risks based on impacts and probability of failure. The participants will learn the basics of risk management, resulting in the prioritisation of assets that subsequently leads to asset management of urban water systems and water loss reduction. Certain losses are inevitable from an urban water system and have to be accepted. This acceptance can only happen when the interplay of elements in the urban systems is understood through social, political and economic perspectives and by looking at the urban water systems from various urban water stakeholders’ points of view.

An urban water strategist understands and embraces the socio-political turbulence that is omnipresent in the urban system and makes use of it to manage the losses. Such an understanding of the urban system and urban water system can be achieved through systems of thinking, essential for strategic planning. Systems thinking will enable the participants to understand the characteristics of urban systems; the traps and opportunities in the urban systems; and, the identification of the levers of the system for the change to reduce losses from the systems, not just the water loss. The participant will learn that is not just water that is lost from the urban systems and will understand the other elements that are flowing through the pipes and more importantly start exploring why are these losses happening before starting to quantify them.

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