Framing wicked water problems: Cases from large Asian transboundary river basins

Mirja Kattelus

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisCollection of Articles


The recent two decades have witnessed major economic growth and development in South and Southeast Asia. This has led to massive changes and development pressures in the region's transboundary river basins, posing major stress to ecosystems, natural resources and livelihoods. The growing pressure on the existing water resources, close links between water, energy and food as well as the complexity of the problem setting, call for holistic approaches towards managing the shared water resources. Integrated approaches such as Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) and Water-Energy-Food nexus (WEF) have been broadly promoted as exemplary holistic processes for guiding water resources management while understanding the broader connections to ecosystems and society. However, through critical examination it is found that they have not yet fully succeeded in providing solutions for transboundary water management: Firstly, they regularly fail to reach and engage other sectors apart from water, the solution potentially remaining limited and water-centric. Secondly, they seek to harmonise the water management policies and practices, while the reality is imbalanced, asymmetrical and dynamic. To better capture this complexity, this dissertation proposes exploring transboundary water management through the framing of wicked problems. Wicked problems are considered to be difficult to solve due to the following characteristics: The problems are ill-defined; Knowledge is incomplete or contradictory; There are a large number of people and opinions involved; The problem creates a heavy economic burden; and These problems are closely interconnected with other ones. Based on the findings of this dissertation, it is argued that characterising water management as a wicked problem – while not providing a concrete set of tools or methods – brings new perspectives to the water-related development challenges in a transboundary context and addresses some of the shortcomings of the integrated approaches. It provides a 'reality check' to the management problems by featuring their complexity in contrast to the more harmonic approaches and by stressing the importance of setting the problem and solution boundaries across relevant thematic, spatial and temporal scales. It further highlights the complexity of the actor space by emphasising that the problem and solution depend on the underlying perspectives, values, interests and the role of power. Despite its inherently pessimistic echo, wicked problems as a concept brings forth an idea that partial and satisfying, instead of optimal or final, solutions need to suffice, as long as they together lead to an overall improvement.
Translated title of the contributionIlkeiden vesiongelmien määrittely: Tapaustutkimuksia Aasian suurilta rajajokivesistöiltä
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor's degree
Awarding Institution
  • Aalto University
  • Varis, Olli, Supervising Professor
  • Rahaman, Muhammad, Thesis Advisor
  • Keskinen, Marko, Thesis Advisor
Print ISBNs978-952-60-7249-4
Electronic ISBNs978-952-60-7248-7
Publication statusPublished - 2017
MoE publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (article)


  • Monsoon Asia
  • water resources management
  • transboundary river basins
  • integrated water resources management
  • water-energy-food nexus
  • wicked problems

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