Dynamics of Coupled Natural-Human-Engineered Systems: An Urban Water Perspective on the Sustainable Management of Security and Resilience

posted on 10.06.2019 by Elisabeth Krueger
The security, resilience and sustainability of water supply in urban areas are of major concern in cities around the world. Their dynamics and long-term trajectories result from external change processes, as well as adaptive and maladaptive management practices aiming to secure urban livelihoods. This dissertation examines the dynamics of urban water systems from a social-ecological-technical systems perspective, in which infrastructure and institutions mediate the human-water-ecosystem relationship.

The three concepts of security, resilience and sustainability are often used interchangeably, making the achievement of goals addressing such challenges somewhat elusive. This becomes evident in the international policy arena, with the UN Sustainable Development Goals being the most prominent example, in which aspirations for achieving the different goals for different sectors lead to conflicting objectives. Similarly, the scientific literature remains inconclusive on characterizations and quantifiable metrics. These and other urban water challenges facing the global urban community are discussed, and research questions and objectives are introduced in Section 1.

In Section 2, I suggest distinct definitions of urban water security, resilience and sustainability: Security refers to the state of system functioning regarding water services; resilience refers to ability to absorb shocks, to adapt and transform, and therefore describes the dynamic, short- to medium-term system behavior in response to shocks and disturbances; sustainability aims to balance the needs in terms of ecology and society (humans and the economic systems they build) of today without compromising the ability to meet the needs of future generations. Therefore, sustainability refers to current and long-term impacts on nature and society of maintaining system functions, and therefore affects system trajectories. I suggest that sustainability should include not only local effects, but consider impacts across scales and sectors. I propose methods for the quantification of urban water security, resilience and sustainability, an approach for modeling dynamic water system behavior, as well as an integrated framework combining the three dimensions for a holistic assessment of urban water supply systems. The framework integrates natural, human and engineered system components (“Capital Portfolio Approach”) and is applied to a range of case study cities selected from a broad range of hydro-climatic and socio-economic regions on four continents. Data on urban water infrastructure and services were collected from utilities in two cities (Amman, Jordan; Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia), key stakeholder interviews and a household survey conducted in Amman. Publicly available, empirical utility data and globally accessible datasets were used to support these and additional case studies.

The data show that community adaptation significantly contributes to urban water security and resilience, but the ability to adapt is highly heterogeneous across and within cities, leading to large inequality of water security. In cities with high levels of water security and resilience, adaptive capacity remains latent (inactive), while water-insecure cities rely on community adaptation for the self-provision of services. The framework is applied for assessing individual urban water systems, as well as for cross-city comparison for different types of cities. Results show that cities fall along a continuous gradient, ranging from water insecure and non-resilient cities with inadequate service provision prone to failure in response to extant shock regimes, to water secure and resilient systems with high levels of services and immediate recovery after shocks. Although limited by diverse constraints, the analyses show that urban water security and resilience tend to co-evolve, whereas sustainability, which considers local and global sustainable management, shows highly variable results across cities. I propose that the management of urban water systems should maintain a balance of security, resilience and sustainability.

The focus in Section 3 is on intra-city patterns and mechanisms, which contribute to urban water security, resilience and sustainability. In spite of engineering design and planning, and against common expectations, intra-city patterns emerge from self-organizing processes similar to those found in nature. These are related to growth processes following the principle of preferential attachment and functional efficiency considerations, which lead to Pareto power-law probability distributions characteristic of scale-free-like structures. Results presented here show that such structures are also present in urban water distribution and sanitary sewer networks, and how deviation from such specific patterns can result in vulnerability towards cascading failures. In addition, unbounded growth, unmanaged demand and unregulated water markets can lead to large inequality, which increases failure vulnerability.

The introduction of infrastructure and institutions for providing urban water services intercedes and mediates the human-water relationship. Complexity of infrastructural and institutional setups, growth patterns, management strategies and practices result in different levels of disconnects between citizens and the ecosystems providing freshwater resources. “Invisibility” of services to citizens results from maximized water system performance. It can lead to a lack of awareness about the effort and underlying infrastructure and institutions that operate for delivering services. Data for the seven cities illustrate different portfolios of complexity, invisibility and disconnection. Empirical data gathered in a household survey and key stakeholder interviews in Amman reveals that a misalignment of stakeholder perceptions resulting from the lack of information flow between citizens and urban managers can be misguiding and can constrain the decision-making space. Unsustainable practices are fostered by invisibility and disconnection and exacerbate the threats to urban water security and resilience. Such challenges are investigated in the context of urban water system traps: the poverty and the rigidity trap. Results indicate that urban water poverty is associated with local unsustainability, while rigidity traps combined with urban demand growth gravitate towards global unsustainability.

Returning to the city-level in Section 4, I investigate urban water system evolution. The question how the trajectories of urban water security, resilience and sustainability can be managed is examined using insights from hydrological and social-ecological systems research. I propose an “Urban Budyko Landscape”, which compares urban water supply systems to hydrological catchments and highlights the different roles of supply- and demand-management of water and water-related urban services. A global assessment of 38 cities around the world puts the seven case studies in perspective, emphasizing the relevance of the proposed framework and the representative, archetypal character of the selected case studies.

Furthermore, I examine how managing for the different dimensions of the CPA (capital availability, robustness, risk and sustainable management) determines the trajectories of urban water systems. This is done by integrating the CPA with the components of social-ecological system resilience, which explain how control of the different components determines the movement of systems through states of security and resilience in a stability landscape. Finally, potential feedbacks resulting from the global environment are investigated with respect to the role that globally sustainable local and regional water management can play in determining the trajectories of urban water systems. These assessments demonstrate how the impact of supply-oriented strategies reach beyond local, regional and into global boundaries for meeting a growing urban demand, and come at the cost of global sustainability and communities elsewhere.

Despite stark differences between individual cities and large heterogeneities within cities, convergent trends and patterns emerge across systems and are revealed through application of the proposed concepts and frameworks. The implications of these findings are discussed in Section 5, and are summarized here as follows:
1) The management of urban water systems needs to move beyond the security and resilience paradigms, which focus on current system functioning and short-term behavior. Sustaining a growing global, urban population will require addressing the long-term, cross-scale and inter-sector impacts of achieving and maintaining urban water security and resilience.
2) Emergent spatial patterns are driven by optimization for the objective functions. Avoiding traps, cascading failure, extreme inequality and maintaining global urban livability requires a balance of supply- and demand-management, consideration of system complexity, size and reach (i.e., footprint), as well as internal structures and management strategies (connectedness and modularity).
3) Urban water security and resilience are threatened by long-term decline, which necessitates the transformation to urban sustainability. The key to sustainability lies in experimentation, modularization and the incorporation of interdependencies across scales, systems and sectors.


Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ (Germany)

PCCRC - Purdue Climate Change Research Center, Graduate Student Incentive Award

Lynn Fellowship awarded through ESE-IGP program at Purdue

NSF-RIPS program, Grant No. 1441188


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Civil Engineering

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

P. Suresh C. Rao

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee co-chair

Dietrich Borchardt

Additional Committee Member 2

James W. Jawitz

Additional Committee Member 3

Zhao Ma

Additional Committee Member 4

David Yu