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Water Resources Planning Under (Deep) Uncertainty  

Riddhi Singh

Public investments in water infrastructure continue to grow where developed countries prioritize investments in operation and maintenance while developing countries focus on infrastructure expansion. The returns from these investments are contingent on carefully assessed designs and operating strategies that consider the complexities inherent in water management problems. These complexities arise due to several factors, including, but not limited to, the presence of multiple stakeholders with potentially conflicting preferences, lack of knowledge about appropriate systems models or parameterizations, and large uncertainties regarding the evolution of future conditions that will confront these projects. The water resources planning literature has therefore developed a variety of approaches for a quantitative treatment of planning problems. Beginning in the mid-20th century, quantitative design evaluations were based on a stochastic treatment of uncertainty using probability distributions to determine expected costs or risk of failure. Several simulation–optimization frameworks were developed to identify optimal designs with techniques such as linear programming, dynamic programming, stochastic dynamic programming, and evolutionary algorithms. Uncertainty was incorporated within existing frameworks using probability theory, using fuzzy theory to represent ambiguity, or via scenario analysis to represent discrete possibilities for the future. As the effects of climate change became palpable and rapid socioeconomic transformations emerged as the norm, it became evident that existing techniques were not likely to yield reliable designs. The conditions under which an optimal design is developed and tested may differ significantly from those that it will face during its lifetime. These uncertainties, wherein the analyst cannot identify the distributional forms of parameters or the models and forcing variables, are termed “deep uncertainties.” The concept of “robustness” was introduced around the 1980s to identify designs that trade off optimality with reduced sensitivity to such assumptions. However, it was not until the 21st century that robustness analysis became mainstream in water resource planning literature and robustness definitions were expanded to include preferences of multiple actors and sectors as well as their risk attitudes. Decision analytical frameworks that focused on robustness evaluations included robust decision-making, decision scaling, multi-objective robust decision-making, info-gap theory, and so forth. A complementary set of approaches focused on dynamic planning that allowed designs to respond to new information over time. Examples included adaptive policymaking, dynamic adaptive policy pathways, and engineering options analysis, among others. These novel frameworks provide a posteriori decision support to planners aiding in the design of water resources projects under deep uncertainties.


Multi-Objective Robust Planning Tools  

Jazmin Zatarain Salazar, Andrea Castelletti, and Matteo Giuliani

Shared water resource systems spark a number of conflicts related to their multi sectorial, regional, and intergenerational use. They are also vulnerable to a myriad of uncertainties stemming from changes in the hydrology, population demands, and climate change. Planning and management under these conditions are extremely challenging. Fortunately, our capability to approach these problems has evolved dramatically over the last few decades. Increased computational power enables the testing of multiple hypotheses and expedites the results across a range of planning alternatives. Advances in flexible multi-objective optimization tools facilitate the analyses of many competing interests. Further, major shifts in the way uncertainties are treated allow analysts to characterize candidate planning alternatives by their ability to fail or succeed instead of relying on fallible predictions. Embracing the fact that there are indeterminate uncertainties whose probabilistic descriptions are unknown, and acknowledging relationships whose actions and outcomes are not well-characterized in planning problems, have improved our ability to perform diligent analysis. Multi-objective robust planning of water systems emerged in response to the need to support planning and management decisions that are better prepared for unforeseen future conditions and that can be adapted to changes in assumptions. A suite of robustness frameworks has emerged to address planning and management problems in conditions of deep uncertainty. That is, events not readily identified or that we know so little about that their likelihood of occurrence cannot be described. Lingering differences remain within existing frameworks. These differences are manifested in the way in which alternative plans are specified, the views about how the future will unfold, and how the fitness of candidate planning strategies is assessed. Differences in the experimental design can yield diverging conclusions about the robustness and vulnerabilities of a system. Nonetheless, the means to ask a suite of questions and perform a more ambitious analysis is available in the early 21st century. Future challenges will entail untangling different conceptions about uncertainty, defining what aspects of the system are important and to whom, and how these values and assumptions will change over time.