It’s Systems Thinking!

Systems Thinking:

Approaching the Problem of Poor Access to Clean Water

Understanding climate change and the issues associated with it, requires a shift in thinking in order to grasp the bigger picture. Systems Thinking is a holistic approach to integration that is rooted in the belief that the component parts of a system will act differently when isolated from the system’s environment or other parts in the system. Essentially, it focuses on linkages and interactions between elements that compose an entire system. In turn, this approach serves as a way to help people understand the complexity of specific issues related to sustainability. In order to achieve sustainable development, we must adopt a new way of processing and troubleshooting complex problems. This cannot be achieved simply by technological solutions, political action, or financial means alone; rather, we must use systems thinking to guide our thought processes, so that we can arrive at a portfolio of solutions.

In order to unpack all of the components of the system, it is beneficial to create a system map that sorts out all of the pieces of the puzzle. Using connecting arrows allows for connections and cause-effect relationships to be illustrated. For my individual research, I am approaching the issue of “lack of access to clean and drinkable water in developing nations”. I used the systems thinking model to lay out all of facets to the problem at hand. Besides, if it was a simple problem with only one cause, it would be solved by now! I put my problem in the center of the white board and then divided the rest into four sections: causes, solutions, impact, and limitations. When you first glance at the white board, it looks like a complicated and confusing network of arrows, however, these arrows actually represent connections between points in the same group (ex: cause connected to another cause) and points in different groups (ex: cause connected with a solution).

Specifically, I noticed several connections between causes and solutions. I also saw many direct connections between certain causes and the problem itself, as I predicted. One direct cause of the problem is of course, climate change. For this one, I drew an arrow facing from climate change to the problem because one piece of my problem is water scarcity due to depletion of water sources from agriculture and industrial usage. On the other hand, another contributor to the problem is the contamination of the available water due to lack of sanitation and hygiene infrastructure. I see this particular relationship through the connecting arrow from pollution to the main problem itself. This reminds me why my problem is a wicked problem- it’s complex!

In addition, I noticed four arrows pointing away from “government” and none pointing towards government. This showed me that the government is a main player in solving this problem because of its authority and access to resources. However, it’s also a source of limitation because of its relationship to the commodification and privatization of water and resistance to change. Similarly, “infrastructure” has eight arrows going to and away; this is due to the fact that money distribution is often not practical or conducive to establishing a plumbing or water treatment system to serve those who are in need.

The Sustainable Development Goals, which officially came into force in 2016, reflect these very issues discussed in my systems map. In fact, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 6 specifically approaches the issue of lack of “Clean Water and Sanitation”. This goal indeed notes that because of “bad economics” and/or “poor infrastructure”, people are suffering from water borne illnesses associated with inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene. This SDG clearly verifies this connection between depletion of water, lack of access to water, and contamination due to lack of sanitation and hygiene. In addition, it recognizes the essentiality of water for all people, hence, addressing the underlying social justice issue. The SDG 6 targets include (but not limited to): achieving universal access to safe and affordable drinking water, creating adequate sanitation and hygiene systems, denoting equal opportunity for women and girls, and actively protecting water-related ecosystems. These examples of the UN’s clearly outlined targets provides additional validation and understanding of the many contributors to the problem and how we must analyze these to determine attainable solutions.

As the UN notes, I also noticed that women and children are disproportionately impacted. To visualize this, there are arrows connected to solutions and limitations, including cultural barriers and need for better transportation to potable water. I do not think I would have recognized or addressed this factor as much if I hadn’t employed systems thinking. Recognizing the presence of environmental injustices and social injustices certainly added another layer to my understanding and approach to solving this bigger problem.

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