A New Water Management Paradigm: The Soft Path




Water Management Continuum

Water management can be viewed on a continuum (or spectrum) that includes three distinct approaches: supply-side, demand management, and the “soft path”. There is a growing awareness of the need to talk in these terms. Furthermore, this awareness is helping to focus attention on what practitioners can do to turn ideas into action. According to Oliver Brandes of the Victoria-based POLIS Project, “Because a spectrum of water management approaches exists, it is important that we move along it – especially if we are going to take sustainability seriously.”

Both supply and demand strategies are used today and the balance between them varies depending on geography, geology, culture, and economic and political choices.  Canadian water utilities employ a variety of demand management techniques – most commonly education programs, watering restrictions and rebates for efficient fixtures. However, most demand-side management (DSM) programs are limited and reactive, focusing only on standard cost-benefit criteria with little attention to the underlying ecological needs.  They are typically implemented in response to emergency situations such as drought or are used as temporary measures until additional supply options can be developed.  Rigorous application of DSM within the water sector, particularly in Canada, remains in its infancy.

At one end of the spectrum, supply-side approaches seek to increase the capacity to withdraw water through large infrastructure such as dams, reservoirs, pumps and pipelines.  Demand-side management complements the supply-side approach and shifts thinking to cost-effective measures that aim to reduce the need for more supply – measures such as consumer education, conservation-based pricing, “smart” technologies and regulations that force innovation by promoting efficiency, conservation and recycling.  At the other end of the spectrum, a “soft path” for water takes the management approach beyond traditional concerns to consider how we might redesign the underlying human systems that determine demand and our approach to supply.

Demand management is the first step towards a new water paradigm.  Using less water to meet the same human needs, through conservation and a dramatic increase in water use efficiency, is the stamp of a more holistic approach to water management.

Moving along the spectrum, programs are increasingly designed to integrate diverse activities such as water provision and wastewater management, energy and water use, land use, and influencing consumer behaviour, to redirect social development onto a new “soft path.”  This path moves beyond efficiency and focuses on conservation, looking to meet underlying human needs instead of just supplying more water.  It requires water planners to satisfy demands for water-based services, rather than simply delivering more water as the product.

A “soft path” for water moves away from “forecasting” the future by simply extrapolating from the past.  Instead it relies on “backcasting” – a planning approach based on a future scenario that integrates human needs within ecological limits.  After determining what water might be available (ecologically), planners then work backwards to find feasible paths to meet long-term social and economic needs.  To reach a sustainable future, the soft path relies on policies and programs that change behavior and promote greater water productivity.

At the core of this process are structural changes that embed conservation complemented by technologies and practices that increase efficiency.  Communities are not just retrofit with low flow fixtures to increase water efficiency; instead they are redesigned for conservation.  Initiatives like “smart growth” that reduce or eliminate sprawling lawns and the concomitant demands for watering, and incentives for xeriscaping and other drought resistant and ecological appropriate yards are examples of the fundamental changes possible with such a long-term and comprehensive approach.  Concepts like rainwater harvesting and fully integrated stormwater management ensure our urban communities are redefined as part of the landscape, saving money and reducing our ecological footprint.



Oliver M Brandes
Research Associate – Sustainable Water Management Project Leader
POLIS Project, University of Victoria
PO Box 3060, Victoria, BC ,V8W 3R4

Phone:  (250) 721 8193
Fax:    (250) 472-5060




Brooks David B. 2003. Another Path Not Taken: A Methodological Exploration of Water Soft Paths for Canada and Elsewhere. Ottawa: Friends of the Earth Canada. (Available at http://www.foecanada.org/)

Brooks, David B. 2005. Beyond Greater Efficiency: The Concept of Water Soft Paths. Canadian Water Resources Journal, 30(1): 83-92.

Gleick, Peter H. 2003. Global Freshwater Resources: Soft-Path Solutions for the 21st Century Science, 302: 524-28.

Brandes, O. M., Ferguson, K., M’Gonigle, M. and Sandborn, C. 2005. At a Watershed: Ecological Governance and Sustainable Water Management in Canada. Victoria, BC: The POLIS Project on Ecological Governance, University of Victoria. Available at http://www.waterdsm.org/

Brandes, O. M. and Brooks, D. M. 2005. The Soft Path for Water in a Nutshell. The POLIS Project on Ecological Governance and The Friends of the Earth Canada. (available at http://www.waterdsm.org/ and http://www.foecanada.org/)