Carrying a message that was equal parts expected and discouraging, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report stressed the dire state of global water resources. Referencing an increased risk of flooding and reduction in the supply of freshwater, the report is a reminder of the 1970s “limits to growth” argument, calling for transformative changes in how society sees progress and development.
Resource optimists have rejected this argument, insisting that society has the capacity to “tech” its way out of resource issues indefinitely. Resource optimism is not uncommon in the field of water management, where smart technologies abound, and engineering solutions are seen as key to ensuring stable water supply.
We challenge these assumptions. The inherent danger of the long popular techno-solutionist mindset in water governance is that softer risks arise from technological solutions themselves. Tech “successes” briefly provide a false sense of security and seemingly excuse society from making short-term sacrifices in exchange for longer-term water security. Further, can we always assume that engineering solutions will stay just ahead of the pace of increased consumption?
While engineering solutions have a role in water management, they should not monopolize how society understands water challenges. Social, political, and economic issues shape how infrastructure is designed and operated, yet the techno-solutionist and social science “camps” of water governance are not in productive communion. The field needs to more systematically see human behavioural dynamics, cultural factors, and the limitations of policy levers as determinants of engineering success or failure – arriving at a more realistic expectation of what engineering solutions can accomplish.
We need to challenge the water management profession to re-think its techno-solutionist mindset to address water in a holistic way
Technology-based solutions enjoy credibility due to decades of rigid policy models (described as “instrumental rationality”). These solutions reflect a power-knowledge nexus in which those with knowledge of technical systems hold decision-making power because problems and solutions are framed in the language of their paradigm. Knowledge is constantly being reproduced and reshaped by those in power, as the evolving mandate of maintaining credibility requires. The techno-solutionist mindset is both endemic and cyclical, creating a feedback loop in which particular paradigms are re-validated and rarely challenged by other paradigms.
These ways of thinking will not serve society well as the threat of systemic environmental collapse looms. Surviving a resource crisis requires massive change of either a technological or cultural manner. If society remains stuck in a techno-solutionist mindset, it will believe that technology performs just well enough to forestall crises in the present while seemingly eliminating the need for transformative action in the longer term.
The existential challenge is that society does not have time to await transformative change in either technological or cultural systems. We need to challenge the water management profession to re-think its techno-solutionist mindset to address water in a holistic way. As such, there is no “solution to” but only “management of” imminent systemic collapse; this reality flies painfully in the face of a profession that so resolutely believes in the efficacy of its own technologies.
This wicked predicament suggests the need not only for more interdisciplinary social science in water governance but also the acknowledgement of the value of folk, local, and indigenous knowledge. New ways of thinking about water governance may not be readily apparent, but society must establish the conditions that allow those ways of thinking to emerge. If we believe that there is always a tech solution around the corner, we will never be fully receptive to alternative options.