Toward an Integrated Resource Management strategy?
Management strategies must recognize the interconnections between human and biophysical systems to improve sustainability in cities. How could this be done? Integrated Resource Management provides an answer. But moving from vision to implementation is challenging…
Urban areas challenges
Urban areas development has encouraged economic growth but has also increased pressure on natural resources. Indeed, urbanization localizes demand for infrastructure, water, food and energy in a small territory while decreasing the availability of space, freshwater and agricultural land. Furthermore, it increases the risk of pollution and the needs for waste treatment. To meet environmental concerns, a sustainable resource management is crucial.
Resources are integrated
A key issue is that resources are strongly linked. A well-known example is the water-energy nexus. Water is used to produce energy, directly via hydroelectricity or acting as a vector of heat exchange in thermal power plants. On the other hand, energy is spent at each steps of the water supply cycle: extraction, transportation, heating and treatment. But the link between resources is also an opportunity. Saving water saves energy, and saving energy saves water For example, the use of local source of water like rainwater and the reuse of treated wastewater are two energy efficient water supply solutions. Sewage sludge can be valorized in heat, power, chemicals or biofuels. Wastewater-based heat pump can provide heating and cooling. Thus, resource management strategies could benefit taking into account the integration between resources to fulfill increasingly ambitious sustainability objectives.
What is IRM?
Integrated Resource Management (IRM) is an innovative approach aiming to integrate various natural and human resources. It is an adaptable process. Its objectives depend on the context. In urban planning, a particular focus is given on the water-energy-food nexus. The goal is to minimize inputs (water, energy and food) and outputs (heat, air pollution, etc.). The basic idea is that there is no waste, only resources. In short, an IRM approach in an urban context aims to:
- Conserve water improving water supply system efficiency,
- Collect and reuse rainwater for example for irrigation purposes,
- Store and infiltrate excess stormwater, using it for ecosystem restoration for instance,
- Reuse wastewater in buildings or landscape irrigation,
- Recover heat, energy and nutrients, generate electricity and produce biogas or others fuels from waste,
- Promote renewables,
- Reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions,
- Analyze the feasibility of local food production,
- Protect ecosystem and ensure biodiversity,
- Promote social justice and equity,
- Favor long-term economic benefits.
Others goals can be defined depending on the local context. Although IRM is an interesting strategy well suited to achieve sustainability, the approach is difficult to implement.
How to implement IRM?
Several weaknesses must be overcome to implement IRM. Here are the most important ones.
Fragmentation of governance and regulation
A common issue is the inadequacy between IRM objectives of integration and the fragmentation of institution and laws. Each resource is managed by a different governing body while there often exist various laws for water, land, air with different and sometimes contradictory objectives. Consequently, IRM should not only coordinate planning agencies but also integrate them in a common legal framework.
Interdisciplinarity and cooperation
IRM brings together a variety of experts such as nature and social scientists, engineers, economists, operating staff, managers, planners, decision-makers, etc. They should work closely in an interdisciplinary process. Without a strong cooperation, implementing IRM is doomed to failure. Bold leadership is necessary to coordinate and define clear responsibilities between members.
One weakness of IRM is the complexity of the approach. Taking into account all resources, their interrelationships, as well as the economic, social and environmental aspects of activities might seem like a herculean task. What should be included and what are the boundaries of the study? However, this complexity is partly linked with a misunderstanding of what IRM should be. Even if an IRM approach should give equal consideration to all resources, it is important not to confound “integrated” and “comprehensive”. While a comprehensive approach requires that each variable and relationships in the system is examined regardless of its significance, an integrated approach considers each variables and relationships but examines only the key ones. Thus, system boundaries, objectives and goals must be clearly specified to define the scope of the project. The human, financial and time resources available must be assessed and compared with the needs of the project to define realistic objectives.
One strength of the IRM approach is its adaptability. IRM objectives and strategies depend on local priorities. However, this flexibility can also be troublesome when planning. A good understanding of the local context is essential. Things are moving rapidly, which can affect IRM targets. Hence, it is vital to develop a long-term strategy to predict and anticipate future changes, including regulation changes. To avoid wasting time and money, a clear and realistic schedule must be defined at the beginning of the project.
IRM recognizes that stakeholders and the public are part of the project and not external to the solution. It is thus important to recognize who should be involved, when, why and how. The success of an IRM approach is strongly dependent on the active participation of all stakeholders. The absence of one of them in IRM planning process may lead to the failure of the project. It is particularly true with less visible and less powerful stakeholders. However, the integration of various perspectives may cause conflicts because each stakeholder will value resources according to its own point of view. Different values lead to technical, ethical and financial disagreements. Dealing with conflicts early in the process enables them to be solved before they become bigger issues in the long-run.
IRM is an iterative process. Hence, it is key to learn from stakeholders and the environment at each step of the project. Learning from stakeholders enables the identification of issues in order to satisfy the expectations of most people. To achieve success, this relationship should work in both directions: the public provide their input and the IRM team informs the public. The objective is not to teach people but to learn from them.
IRM progress must be assessed throughout the project. To do so, evaluation criteria must be defined in accordance with the goals of the study and the local context. These criteria must have the same logic of integration as IRM. However, a barrier to a successful IRM implementation is the lack of proper evaluation criteria. Multidimensional indicators should be developed to integrate environmental, social and economic aspects in the assessment.
Monitoring gives quantitative data to assess the current situation and progress made. But too much information could be counter-productive. An efficient system to collect, store and convert raw data into useful information is necessary to avoid getting overwhelmed. The use of a computing tool such as Geographic Information System (GIS) is very helpful.
Operation, maintenance and education
Operational staff sometimes lack the necessary skills to deal with new technical solutions. Thus, policies and implementation strategies must be designed to train staff members. Moreover, although maintenance is an essential step to avoid low performance due to deteriorated equipment, it is often disregarded in projects. Consequently, operation and maintenance must be included in the budget since the beginning of the project.
All these implementation barriers can be overcame with good planning. A methodology is proposed in the following figure as a guideline. Keep in mind that IRM is an adaptable process, so each project should define strategies best suited for the local context.
In summary, IRM is a promising approach to fulfill increasingly ambitious sustainability objectives because it takes into account the links between natural resources. However, there is still a gap between theory and practice. Research is needed to better understand the environmental cycles, the interrelationships between natural resources, the environmental costs of human activities and their social benefits. But to make an integrated approach successful, it is not sufficient to only consider natural resources. Indeed, human resources are a vital part of the process. Governance and regulation must evolve to support an IRM strategy. Cooperation between governing bodies must be enhanced while laws must be less fragmented to match IRM objectives. Implementing IRM is challenging. Are the benefits worth the costs?
Daniel R. Klein, Ghazal Ebrahimi, Lucas Navilloz, Boris Thurm, and Gunilla Öberg 2014. Water Management at UBC. Background report for the project: Would it make sense to develop an integrated resource management strategy for UBC, using a water lens? Vancouver, BC: Program on Water Governance.
Boris Thurm 2014. Exploring the possibility of an Integrated Resource Management Strategy for the University of British Columbia: Focus on the Water-Energy Nexus. Master Thesis. Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne EPFL.
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