Articles | Volume 19, issue 2
Research article
05 Feb 2015
Research article |  | 05 Feb 2015

Reimagining the past – use of counterfactual trajectories in socio-hydrological modelling: the case of Chennai, India

V. Srinivasan

Abstract. The developing world is rapidly urbanizing. One of the challenges associated with this growth will be to supply water to growing cities of the developing world. Traditional planning tools fare poorly over 30–50 year time horizons because these systems are changing so rapidly. Models that hold land use, economic patterns, governance systems or technology static over a long planning horizon could result in inaccurate predictions leading to sub-optimal or paradoxical outcomes. Most models fail to account for adaptive responses by humans that in turn influence water resource availability, resulting in coevolution of the human–water system. Is a particular trajectory inevitable given a city's natural resource endowment, is the trajectory purely driven by policy or are there tipping points in the evolution of a city's growth that shift it from one trajectory onto another?

Socio-hydrology has been defined as a new science of water and people that will explicitly account for such bi-directional feedbacks. However, a particular challenge in incorporating such feedbacks is imagining technological, social and political futures that could fundamentally alter future water demand, allocation and use. This paper offers an alternative approach – the use of counterfactual trajectories – that allows policy insights to be gleaned without having to predict social futures. The approach allows us to "reimagine the past"; to observe how outcomes would differ if different decisions had been made.

The paper presents a "socio-hydrological" model that simulates the feedbacks between the human, engineered and hydrological systems in Chennai, India over a 40-year period. The model offers several interesting insights. First, the study demonstrates that urban household water security goes beyond piped water supply. When piped supply fails, users turn to their own wells. If the wells dry up, consumers purchase expensive tanker water or curtail water use and thus become water insecure. Second, unsurprisingly, different initial conditions result in different trajectories. But initial advantages in piped infrastructure are eroded if the utility is unable to expand the piped system to keep up with growth. Both infrastructure and sound management decisions are necessary to ensure household water security although the impacts of mismanagement may not manifest until much later when the population has grown and a multi-year drought strikes. Third, natural resource endowments can limit the benefits of good policy and infrastructure. Cities can boost recharge through artificial recharge schemes. However, cities underlain by productive aquifers can better rely on groundwater as a buffer against drought, compared to cities with unproductive aquifers.

Short summary
The paper models the socio-hydrologic system in a developing city -- Chennai, India -- using "counterfactual trajectories" to understand what might have happened if different decisions had been made 50 years ago. A key contribution is the inclusion of two-way feedbacks between the human, engineered, and hydrological systems. Households are allowed to adapt to decisions made by the water utility. This influences how they use water and consequently how much water is available in the aquifer.