The role of indicators in developing sustainable urban water systems
Abstract: Conventional urban water systems function well, in the sense that they protect receiving waters from eutrophication and supply the people they serve with water and sanitation. However, the rate at which these systems consume energy and resources in order to supply these services is increasingly regarded as unsustainable, while their capacity to recycle nutrients and handle toxic compounds is seen as limited and inadequate. The application of sustainable development indicators (SDIs) is frequently recommended for guiding development towards more sustainable trajectories. SDI use in organizations is also recommended, though there are few documented examples of SDI implementation in water organizations.
On the empirical basis of one case study and three field studies of Swedish organizations, and one field study of a German organization, the thesis investigates the preconditions for applying SDIs in water service organizations. To complement these studies, the scientific literature was searched and sector associations consulted to find definitions of sustainable development and of indicators applicable to urban water systems. The thesis describes the range of conceptions of sustainable development held by the groups of actors studied, and the extent to which these conceptions are reflected in the recommended and/or applied SDIs. The use of SDIs is analyzed in terms of what information different actors consider it relevant to capture in indicators (e.g., environmental, social, financial, or technical), as well as the applications (e.g., monitoring, benchmarking, reporting, and management by objectives) in which indicators are considered useful. Furthermore, the processes and key factors that support or restrict the use of SDIs in the urban water context are investigated.
The results indicate that key actors in the urban water sector hold divergent views of sustainable development and of whether and how SDIs are useful in fostering it. Numerous indicators are in use, particularly in monitoring and mandatory reporting, that are not formally termed SDIs, but which nonetheless capture certain sustainability issues. It is concluded that before SDIs can be further developed, the potential SDI users in an organization need to settle on one shared or a number of non-contradictory visions of sustainable development. Thereafter, they need to agree on whether or not they consider the application of SDIs useful, and if so, what purposes the SDIs should serve. To make SDIs useful, the content and function of SDIs need to be specifically considered in each relationship between information sender and receiver.
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