Environmental Management

, Volume 31, Issue 2, pp 0182–0197

Soft Systems Methodology and the Ecosystem Approach: A System Study of the Cooum River and Environs in Chennai, India


DOI: 10.1007/s00267-002-2721-8

Cite this article as:
BUNCH, M. Environmental Management (2003) 31: 0182. doi:10.1007/s00267-002-2721-8


This paper discusses the integration of soft systems methodology (SSM) within an ecosystem approach in research to support rehabilitation and management of the Cooum River and environs in Chennai, India. The Cooum is an extremely polluted urban stream. Its management is complicated by high rates of population growth, poverty, uncontrolled urban development, jurisdictional conflicts, institutional culture, flat topography, tidal action, blockage of the river mouth, and monsoon flooding. The situation is characterized by basic uncertainty about main processes and activities, and the nature of relationships among actors and elements in the system.

SSM is an approach for dealing with messy or ill-structured problematic situations involving human activity. In this work SSM contributed techniques (such as “rich picture” and “CATWOE” tools) to description of the Cooum situation as a socioecological system and informed the approach itself at a theoretical level. Application of three general phases in SSM is discussed in the context of the Cooum River research: (1) problem definition and exploration of the problem situation, (2) development of conceptual models of relevant systems, and (3) the use of these to generate insight and stimulate debate about desirable and feasible change. Its use here gives weight to the statement by others that SSM would be a particularly appropriate methodology to operate the ecosystem approach. As well as informing efforts at management of the Cooum system, this work led the way to explore an adaptive ecosystem approach more broadly to management of the urban environment for human health in Chennai.

KEY WORDS: Urban environmental management; Soft systems methodology; Adaptive management; Participation; Conceptual modeling; Ecosystem approach 

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag New York Inc. 2003

Authors and Affiliations

    • 1
  1. 1.Faculty of Environment Studies, York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M3J 1P3CA

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