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The fourth ‘E’ – reflections on agendas for change in water management

The fourth ‘E’ of Integrated Water Management calls for a set of principles or ‘ethics’ to guide organizational or personal objectives. Source: International Water Centre, 2017

Dr Brian S. McIntosh FCIWEM: Education Director Email: Phone +61 7 3028 7600


Moving beyond the 3E’s of Integrated Water Management, IWC Education Director Dr Brian McIntosh argues for a fourth ‘E’ in the framework – one that speaks to the principles or ethics that underpin our personal and organisational objectives.

Integrated water management (IWM) is, for me, a label that describes a systemic, change-oriented set of principles and approaches to joining up the management of all aspects of water. By this I mean joining up or coordinating the management of waterways and wetlands to ensure ecological function; the management of water abstraction, resource storage and distribution across different uses and users, and; the management of providing water supply and wastewater services; all while taking into account the essential nature of water environmentally, socially and economically.

I am, however, on what one might term the soft or pragmatic side of IWM, the side of IWM which seeks to make reforms, changes and advances in ways which are appropriate to context and which take advantage of prevailing conditions politically, socially, economically, environmentally, or in terms of infrastructure condition and performance. Perhaps I am an opportunist. I contrast the soft with what one might term the hard (but not dark) side of IWM which seeks to a greater degree to implement particular and prescribed governance, planning and management arrangements and/or processes. The risks with harder approaches, from my perspective, are that they become ends in themselves rather than means to improving particular situations, or that they fail because only some of what they prescribe is suited or acceptable to the local contexts in which they are applied. Hence I tend towards the soft, the pragmatic and the opportunistic.

Framing IWM objectives

Regardless of where one might lie as a professional on this spectrum of soft, more pragmatic to hard, more prescribed approaches, there is a common history and ambition to all IWM rooted in the Brundtland Commission and work on sustainable development which emerged in the late 20th century, seeking to find ways to better balance the social, economic and environmental dimensions of human development and impact. As part of these approaches to sustainable development, IWRM (Integrated Water Resources Management) was developed with three key management objectives. These are sometimes referred to as the ‘3Es’ – improved economic efficiency, environmental sustainability, and social equity – and can be seen as a version of the triple bottom line in terms of sustainability. These objectives have application to guiding approaches to IWM beyond IWRM itself.

Much has happened since that time, now two to three decades ago, and we are currently coming to terms with what the new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) mean globally and for each country. In particular, the global water sector is grappling with what the water focused SDG – SDG6 – means for the reform of water management structures, activities, outputs, and outcomes. The SDGs are not the only show in town, however, with other frameworks such as the Asian Development Bank’s five-dimensional water security model and the Alliance for Water Stewardship providing other ways of thinking about reforming and improving the ways in which we manage water. Beyond the water sector, we can find yet more ways of structuring how we should think about and act to improve complex situations. The questions that Bent Flyvberg poses as being central to the function of social science: ‘Where are we going? Is this desirable? What should be done? Who gains and who loses?’ are a simple but powerful example.1

The case for a fourth ‘E’

Underneath the 3Es, or SDG6 or any other framework which contains a set of objectives and/or targets for change, has to lie a conception, even if hidden or somewhat mixed up, of what the right, or good thing to do is. I’ll explain. One cannot talk about change without articulating what could be improved, what could be done better. Embodied in the terms improvement or better, either implicitly or explicitly, has to be a set of principles or a set of rules for assessing what is wrong and guiding what should be done and what is right to do in a given situation. One might call this often hidden dimension the fourth ‘E’ of IWM – the ethics of IWM.              

How many of us are clear about the ethical basis upon which we work as professionals and indeed manage our personal lives? How many of us have thought through the principles upon which we decide what is right to do, and then follow through by using those principles in day to day life and over longer timescales across the course of our lives and careers? It is easy to lose sight of doing what is right, as everyday professional (and also personal) life operates within the constraints of budgets and time. We can become more concerned with the efficiency and effectiveness of existing practices (are we doing things right?) than with the overall impacts and outcomes of the ways in which we and our organization’s work (are we doing the right things?).

One cannot talk about change without articulating what could be improved, what could be done better.  

The literature on ethics is voluminous, to say the least, stretching back millennia (try giving Aristotle a read for example) but there are some great shorter 2 and longer 3 reviews which will summarise and provide insight into the different ways in which we can think about what is the right thing to do, and how to live (professionally and personally) a good life.

Broadly, however, one might distinguish two main approaches to deciding what is right and what is not:

  • Consequentialism – the right actions to perform are those which produce the right kinds of consequences either overall in terms of net benefit to everyone affected (this is called utilitarianism – the right thing to do is that which generates the greatest positive impact overall even if some people lose out) or to the individual actor (this is called ethical egoism and essentially describes a selfish position either individually or organizationally). Here, what is good is defined solely in terms of the outcomes or consequences of actions.

  • Non-consequentialism – the right actions to perform are those which follow either an independent set of rules (this is called deontology e.g. right actions are those which comply with religious rules or a logical system) or which result from people behaving in particular ways (this is called virtue ethics e.g. people enacting Buddhist behavioural principles will act in the right way by virtue of behaving according to those principles). Here what is good is defined independently of the consequences of actions.

There are various subtleties and distinctions within these two broad classes of approach, and most people in practice blend together more than one approach depending on their history and their circumstances. There are also both theoretical and practical pros and cons to each approach which mean that there is no single ‘best’ approach to take.

“If one view change as coming about as a consequence of learning then it is impossible to escape the need to be clear about what constitutes right action.”

Engaging in the choices available offers a way of being clearer about our conceptions of right and wrong, of good and bad. This offers a way to improve our lives, the lives of those with whom we interact and/or effect, and our careers. This is particularly true if we view our career as being a long-term process by which we play a role in shaping and delivering change for the better (whatever that might be). Indeed, if one view change as coming about as a consequence of learning then it is impossible to escape the need to be clear about what constitutes right action.

Applying ethics to organizational learning

Based on authors from organizational learning such as Chris Argyris and from systems thinking such as Gregory Bateson, learning can be distinguished into three forms. First, single loop learning, whereby we focus on asking ‘are we doing things right?’ and getting progressively better, more efficient and more effective at doing things the way they are currently done. We don’t question outputs or outcomes, we just get better at doing what we currently do. Second, double loop learning, where we seek to challenge assumptions by asking ‘are we doing the right thing?’ and, in doing so, open ourselves or our work up to doing different things in order to achieve different outputs and outcomes. Finally, third loop learning, where we engage in deeper discourse in order to figure out ‘how do we decide what is right?’.

“If we can create the spaces ourselves individually or collectively within the organizations that we work for to engage in double loop learning by asking ‘are we doing the right things?’ we create the opportunity to incorporate ethical principles and considerations into the planning, decision making and management of our work.”

Normal professional activity is focused on single loop learning and unless outcomes of work are being consciously monitored and evaluated and then assessed, or clear principles are being used to decide on what to do on the basis of what is right up front, then the application of ethics can seem remote. But if we can create the spaces ourselves individually or collectively within the organizations that we work for to engage in double loop learning by asking ‘are we doing the right things?’ we create the opportunity to incorporate ethical principles and considerations into the planning, decision making and management of our work. And in doing this we create the opportunity to shape and deliver changes to water management which have, however, we frame it, a good impact or outcome.

The challenge for us as IWM professionals is to first become aware of the different ethical frameworks and approaches that are available, and then to incorporate them into both daily life and the larger, longer process of working towards desirable outcomes across the span of our careers. It is a daunting task, but the only way that I can see of being clear about improving the way that we approach complex water management challenges over the short term or over the course of a career. Enjoy the journey.

Article Disclaimer: This article was published by a contributor at the International Water Centre and was retrieved on 06/14/2017 and posted at INDESEEM for information and educational purposes only.The views and contents of the article remain those of the authors. We will not be held accountable for the reliability and accuracy of the materials. If you need additional information on the published contents and materials, please contact the original authors and publisher. Please cite the authors, original source, and INDESEEM accordingly.







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INDESEEM is an emerging research and development nonprofit organization working with partners in developing and least developed countries to providing technical and non-technical support services to ensure that we and our partners achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and beyond.

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