How to address the complex issue of water conservation 

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sundararajan Mahalingam, President – Strategy, HCL Corporation, Nidhi Pundhir, Head, HCL Foundation, HCLTech


  • Freshwater ecosystems, such as rivers and lakes, are the lifeblood of our planet.
  • We must protect these complex, fragile systems from the impacts of climate change.
  • A systems thinking approach to water conservation can help us protect this precious resource.

The Earth comprises diverse and interconnected ecosystems: the atmosphere, water, ocean, land, forests, biodiversity and social systems. Not only are these complex systems always in a state of flux, but they also have a symbiotic and often fragile relationship and interdependence with one another.

However, this dynamic interdependence and engagement can sometimes become unbalanced and lead to unwanted friction and unexpected repercussions. For example, deforestation in the tropics not only has an immediate effect on the regional climate but also creates long-term climatic variances in totally different regions elsewhere on the planet. Whenever this critical interdependence gets imbalanced or disturbed, the consequences are often unwanted and devastating.

Taking a systems thinking approach to water

When focusing on nature conservation initiatives, it is important to understand these complex problems from a systems thinking perspective, not only to solve them but also to prevent such problems from occurring in the first place. Systems thinking is an approach to understand and assess the structure, dynamics and interactions amongst the various systems, including physical elements, institutions, society and mental models that shape the world, as they interact and co-evolve to co-create the world around us.

A system contains both the causes of its success and failure and it is possible to solve more than one problem at the same time, if the system issues are addressed correctly. For this, it’s also important to identify the accurate leverage points within a system. An intervention or innovation will be effective and sustainable only if it does not create any new problems.

Water is life and it’s central to nature conservation. In particular, freshwater is a limited natural resource. Freshwater ecosystems are essential for human survival as they are a major source of drinking water; they are the lifeblood for local eco-systems along with the native flora and fauna they host. But water conservation is a complex problem, as there is a possibility of several causes/drivers, such as unsustainable patterns of consumption, pollution, loss of green cover, etc., that can be a hindrance.

Analyzing the complex problems of water conservation, itself exacerbated by climate change, through a systems thinking approach can help practitioners and innovators break down the complex system into smaller process and address the root causes rather than superficially addressing the problem.

One of the examples to understand different systems and their interactions is to appreciate how the introduction of wolves’ in Yellowstone National Park had a cascading and beneficial effect upon the entire ecosystem including the rivers that flow through the park.

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Addressing complex water problems

The success of water conservation projects lies in identifying leverage points and analyzing the various systems and their continuous interactions with each other. Anthropological practices are central to understanding as well as resolving this issue. Understanding and analyzing feedback loops is important.

In integrated water resource management, a sound understanding of the water cycle, drainage patterns, and identification of the recharge (leverage) points can play a crucial role in groundwater recharge. Even when this is achieved to perfection using the best scientific means and nature-based solutions, should one fail to build ownership of communities, understand local culture, recognize the social system and bring in sustainable approaches towards behavioural change, outcomes will be limited at best and all investments will go waste.

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What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

Water security – both sustainable supply and clean quality – is a critical aspect in ensuring healthy communities. Yet, our world’s water resources are being compromised.

Today, 80% of our wastewater flows untreated back into the environment, while 780 million people still do not have access to an improved water source. By 2030, we may face a 40% global gap between water supply and demand.

The World Economic Forum’s Water Possible Platform is supporting innovative ideas to address the global water challenge.

The Forum supports innovative multi-stakeholder partnerships including the 2030 Water Resources Group, which helps close the gap between global water demand and supply by 2030 and has since helped facilitate $1Billion of investments into water.

Other emerging partnerships include the 50L Home Coalition, which aims to solve the urban water crisis, tackling both water security and climate change; and the Mobilizing Hand Hygiene for All Initiative, formed in response to close the 40% gap of the global population not having access to handwashing services during COVID-19.

Want to join our mission to address the global water challenge? Read more in our impact story.

Often, projects tend to address complex water conservation problems in isolation by ignoring the feedback network that connects different ecosystems – this results in “unanticipated events”. Project implementers/innovators need to understand that every ecosystem is governed by feedback and this cannot be ignored. Missing feedback and delayed closure of feedback loops are the most common causes of system malfunction.

Water conservation efforts in India

In India, waterbodies such as ponds, wetlands, lakes,etc., play a vital role in maintaining the ecological balance, recharge groundwater levels and help with flood control. These water systems are also deeply enmeshed with local and regional socio-cultural practices and may also have a gender dimension. However, many of these water bodies now face a lot of stress due to anthropogenic activities, pollution, encroachment, etc. which are threatening to de-stabilize the ecosystem. In fact, encroachment of these waterbodies has resulted in flash floods in cities like Mumbai and Chennai, which is a case of delay in feedback and intervention.

The interventions planned should be innovative, adaptive, and easily scalable. HCLTech under its CSR initiative – Harit by HCL Foundation – has strategically adopted a systems thinking approach towards conservation of waterbodies that has enabled the recharge of around 36 billion litres of water across India in less than three years. From geo-mapping of waterbodies (especially ponds), community mobilization and community led action, state partnerships, restoring oxygen levels using innovative scientific techniques, deploying nature-based solutions, or provisioning flourishing native biodiversity, all elements are parts of a complex problem, addressed systematically.

Adopting the same systems thinking approach (landscape approach) can bring significant benefits to river conservation, given the fragile yet important interplay of several systems with each including the natural water cycle, forest ecosystem, social system and local biodiversity.

For example, the plantation of native saplings in the river catchment area would help develop a strong root network in the long run and prevent topsoil erosion, thus helping control gully formation. This will also help retain soil moisture and the plantation will create a healthy terrestrial environment supporting the growth of the associated species leading to the redevelopment of what was originally a thriving and self-sustained ecosystem. Additional benefits in terms of provision of ecosystem services include water conservation, preventing soil erosion and enhancing climate resilience.

Therefore, a systems thinking and integrated approach helps conservationists accrue both tangible and intangible, quantitative and qualitative impact throughout the project life cycle. Irrespective of the returns, efforts must continue because water will always be central to life.

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