International Waters learning Exchange & Resource Network

The importance of alternatives

There are usually several different ways of resolving transboundary environmental problems and achieving global benefits. During the development of the SAP, all choices available to politicians must be documented. A particular solution should not be pre-selected.

An example of this is the choice of strategies for reducing the input of nutrients from sewage to aquatic systems. Such removal is often necessary to combat eutrophication on a local or transboundary scale. One approach is to build tertiary treatment plants that remove nitrogen and phosphorus compounds as part of a more comprehensive sewage treatment and disposal strategy. An alternative would be to permit some discharge of nutrients but to enhance the natural capacity of the system to remove nutrients through the restoration or creation of wetlands.

The choice is not always simple. In the first option, the technical approach requires little land and can be managed by a small number of specialists, but needs energy, skilled maintenance, the chemical products themselves, and subsequent disposal. In the second option, the wetlands benefit wildlife, require less skilled attention and have low requirements for chemicals and energy but use valuable space that may not be readily available.

The choice depends on the balance between costs and benefits. The balance depends on factors that vary from place to place (local economics, investment costs and the costs of operation and maintenance). It is also highly influenced by culture and worldviews: highly technological solutions are favoured in some societies whereas others prefer ‘green’ approaches. Both options must be explained to the policymakers. No particular ‘lobby’ can be allowed to insist on its own approach.