ISET Economist Blog

The Knowing of Not Knowing in Water Management (and how to tackle the issue)
Monday, 16 April, 2018

The Georgian government is currently facing some tremendous challenges in adjusting to the EU Association Agreement (AA). A particularly problematic area of reform concerns the implementation of Directive 2000/60/EC, aka the European Water Framework Directive (WFD). Properly managing water resources is an extremely difficult endeavor that requires a deep understanding of all the mechanisms at work. Failing to adequately manage water resources could have profound and long-lasting negative consequences, both in terms of the development perspectives of the country and the wellbeing of its population. My intent with this post is to briefly highlight, with examples from the academic literature, the need to consider uncertainty in water management. This piece is an introductory presentation of the ongoing work within the EEPRC team regarding water management, leaning specifically towards the implementation of the WFD. In future articles, common types of uncertainties within water management will be specifically addressed.


The government has already identified the need for an adjustment to water legislation, something which is in full process. As outlined by the government, the start of the transformation of current water legislation (from 1997) started in 2011 and is expected to become valid once the finalized steps are considered. This (often complex) process has also been affected by the restructuring of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Protection, whose competencies have been split between the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development (MoESD) and the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture. Thus, the institutional setting which was previously up and running could be adjourned, which is likely to cause ambivalence and insecurity if not addressed properly. In my view, one major spot which could easily be overlooked is how governmental bodies, including local governments, are handling changes; in particular, how they will be interpreting the legal framing of the reform and putting it into practice. I would argue that supporting the ongoing work that lies ahead for the government is also to dare to expose where uncertainties appear. More often than not, this is tightly linked to what directions and conditions are set to rule each administrative body. Exposing uncertainties at all administrative levels would not only depict where the weak links are located regarding the implementation process, but could also serve to make governance more adaptable to unpredictability.

That said, how is uncertainty in water management exemplified in academic literature?


The hydrological cycle has a profound meaning for plant cover and soil and hence has a vital role in the health and survival of ecosystem services on which humans highly rely. Changes in the hydrological cycle will impact the feedback loops much needed for the biogeochemical cycle, in which the hydrological cycle plays an important role. In uncertainty management, components other than economic and technological approaches have rarely been considered. However, a system change towards proper water management practices requires an increased understanding of the interaction between ecosystems and water and the ecosystem services that life depends on. According to Smith & Smith (2001, p. 3), ecosystem management, “... considers ecological systems as functional units and stresses their long-term sustainability.”

There are many ways to define ecological management; I chose to embrace the definition of Smith & Smith (2001), who state that ecological management includes perspectives such as socioeconomic, institutional, and ecological parameters within one approach. In recent years, within both the scientific and policy community, an emerging awareness that strives for a holistic approach has taken place, influenced by integrated system management, in which the link between land and water has been given increased observance. This was extensively highlighted at international conventions, and even more importantly, introduced in the EU's WFD (WFD, 2000/60/EC). With this understanding, my interest lies in the institutional sphere, where I wish to reveal uncertainties that far too often appear in relation to the practical work in water management.

Uncertainty within water management is something that needs to be carefully examined, especially in relation to environmental and ecological decision-making. The existence of uncertainty, as stressed by Isendahl et al (2009, p. 3192) is due to, “... the interaction between actors and objects and may hence be framed differently according to changes in the relation between actors and objects.” In order to combat these types of uncertainties, Isendahl et al (2009) promoted the idea of investigating how different actors actually relate to uncertainty. For this reason, it is critical to investigate what types of uncertainties could be detected in implementing the WFD, as this may have profound implications not only for policymakers but also for economic agents and for the population at large. Lopés-Gamero et al (2011, p.428) describe environmental uncertainty as being due to managers perceiving their business environment is unpredictable. They define environmental uncertainty as “... the shortage of information […] and/or the impossibility of predicting external changes and their impact on organizational decisions.”

In the past, as pointed out by Brugnach et al (2008), identified types of uncertainties within environmental management were categorized as arising because of lack of knowledge, whereas today it is more related to interpretation due too many agents such as civil servants on both local, regional and national administrative level. As suggested by Handmer (2001), in order to diminish the uncertainty factor, policies should be made resistant to interference. In addition, encouraging stakeholders to be better prepared could help them to take uncertainty into account when they plan their activities. One possible step for preparing stakeholders, such as civil servants, is to contribute to studies highlighting the types of uncertainties that exist within their areas of responsibility.

My argument is very much in line with what Isendahl et al (2009, p. 3202) note “... uncertainty in water management can no longer be ignored or trivialized given the increasing pace and dimensions of changes and future challenges.” For Georgia, this change is, at least in my reasoning, the well-anticipated workload related to adjusting to EU regulations.


We do know that it is not possible to predict a future with the absence of uncertainty. We also do not know what the future holds for the Georgian government, with an ambiguous road ahead where adjustments are needed to gravitate towards the EU Acquis (the body of common rights and obligations that is binding on all the EU member states). If possible, one could try to eliminate or at least expose the unknown uncertainties that could occur due to, for example, ambiguity that more often than not will surface when administrative changes are to set to happen due to, for example, the introduction of new regulations.

As a finishing note to this post, I would like to suggest a few steps toward at least managing (if not resolving) uncertainties as defined by Sigel et al (2010). The first points towards sources of uncertainty described as “... the point of reference of uncertainty.” By circling the origin of uncertainties, there is a need to follow a certain structure of measurement methodology. For example, if there is uncertainty in water quality assessments, there is a need to assess water status and deficits or identify causes and set development targets. Each identified measurement structure could trace the origin of the uncertainty. It is therefore important to pay attention to what measurement structure to use or else it could lead to a false description of the uncertainty itself. The second perspective concerns the reducibility of uncertainty. The ability to reduce uncertainty within environmental decision-making is linked to how to behave with types of uncertainties that cannot for some reason be avoided or minimized. From this point of view, there is at least one direction one could gravitate towards in order to combat and reduce uncertainties. This requires knowledge and understanding and can be addressed by adding more knowledge or obtaining specific information in order to reduce uncertainty (Sigel et al, 2010; Kundzewicz et al, 2018). If knowledge is not currently available, it can be gained by learning, possibly as Petrov (2015) suggests, by training relevant professionals in EU law. Another important step could also be to pay greater attention to how civil servants are experiencing uncertainties linked to their day-to-day work with the WFD.

In conclusion, the best approach to minimize uncertainties and improve the quality of water management is to invest in research, data collection, and human capital building. This should be kept in mind by policymakers as they work to implement the EU Water Framework Directive in the Georgian context.

The views and analysis in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the international School of Economics at TSU (ISET) or ISET Policty Institute.