The Governance of Complex Problems: Addressing Poor Water Quality in Germany

  • 2017/06/20     Dresden, Germany




    Reporting by Rachel Shindelar, Communications and Advocacy

    If you ask around, most German citizens will proudly declare that water is the most regulated natural resource in Germany. While this is true, the amount of these regulations does not guarantee high water quality. Actually, poor water quality is a major issue not only in Germany but across the European Union. The failure to achieve a good quality of water is often ascribed to the complexity of the problem. But what does this mean exactly? When is a problem complex, and how does this complexity effect governance strategies?

    These questions underline Sabrina Kirschke’s research on the role of complexity in addressing the water quality challenge. “We do not know how complex water-related implementation problems, such as the upgrade of wastewater treatment plants or leaching in agriculture, actually are. And we do not know how this complexity affects solutions and governance arrangements,” Kirschke, a researcher in Water Resources Management Unit at UNU-FLORES, explains. “A concept that allows us not only to classify the complexity of an issue but also to identify how this complexity impacts governance processes is crucial for addressing so-called ‘complex problems’.”

    In the 21st instalment of the Nexus Seminar Series on 19 June 2017, Kirschke provided insight into strategies for governing complex problems by looking at the complexity of pollution-related problems for German water governance within the European Water Framework Directive. She showed how the complexities of this issue impacts solutions and introduced recommendations for governance strategies to address such complex problems in the future.


    In an interdisciplinary approach, Kirschke combined conceptualisations drawn from literature in the complementary fields of public policy analysis and psychology research. To better understand how complex these problems are, Kirschke specified a classification of varying dimensions and degrees of complexity – namely low, medium, and high degrees of conflict of goals, variables, dynamics, interconnections, and informational uncertainty. In her empirical work, she analysed 37 different pollution-related problems, that German public authorities define as important pressures on water resources. She conducted 65 qualitative interviews with experts from science and practice on the complexity of problems, and analysed a set of about 11,000 measures to address water problems in practice.

    Applying this classification of complexity to the mentioned 37 water quality-related problems, Kirschke shows that these problems vary in degree of complexity; some problems are highly complex (e.g., addressing micro pollution), and some problems are rather simple (e.g., establishing wastewater treatment plants). These varying degrees of complexity are based on 30 types of arguments for complexity, amongst them natural, technical, and social science-related arguments.

    Taking these results one step further, Kirschke asked in her research what effect these varying degrees of complexity have for the development and implementation of governance strategies. “In general, complexity tends to delay implementation at the stage of planning. However, different dimensions of complexity (goals, variables, dynamics, interconnections, and uncertainty) have an impact on different stages of policy delivery (goal formulation, stages, and degrees of implementation) in various ways.”

    In order to address these varying implementation challenges of water quality-related measures, Kirschke suggests applying a differentiated theoretical approach to define governance for complex problem-solving. In discussion with the audience she emphasised that the role of diverse institutions, actors, and interactions differs for the five key dimensions of complexity.

    Ongoing research at UNU-FLORES shows how the approach can be applied to different problems, regions, and cultural settings, such as water-soil nexus problems in China and wastewater management problems in three Latin American countries. Discussing the implementation of the Nexus Approach on problems in these countries, Kirschke further explains, “This is where a Nexus Approach is very valuable. Looking at problems from the nexus perspective, you realise that some problems which may appear quite simple are actually very complex.”