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The recognition of the limits of resources is almost as old as the realization that our planet is a sphere leading to concerns about sustainable resources management. Water resources in particular receive growing attention given its uneven distribution in many parts of the world. Engineering solutions to address water management challenges played significant roles in the past in areas such as access to clean water and sanitation, providing water for irrigation, offering protection against floods, allowing power generation, etc. Despite their proven benefits, engineering solutions are receiving increasing criticism due to their negative environmental and societal impacts and the high cost of their implementation and operation. More reliance on ecosystem services as an alternative is often advocated as a means to achieve more sustainable water management solutions. This paper examines key water services that human societies rely on and the feasible roles that ecosystems can play in lieu of engineering solutions. The paper applies the “balanced triangle” of the planetary (abiotic), ecosystems (biotic) and human societal (anthropic) resources and assets as a basis for evaluating different water management strategies. The ultimate goal of the paper is to offer guidance for finding a better balance in deploying ecosystem-based and engineering solutions together with satisfying the needs of human societies while minimizing the impacts on the ecosystems.


This article was originally published in Earth Perspectives, available at DOI: 10.1186/s40322-014-0027-7.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (



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