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What are the priorities for global water research?

About the blog

Dr Alesia Ofori
Research Fellow in Water and Sanitation Governance - School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds.

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  • What are the priorities for global water research?

Global water security presents a complex problem for human societies and will become more acute as the impacts of climate change escalate. The hot and dry summer of 2022 has, for instance, brought complex water challenges into public debate in the UK. Should we build more reservoirs? Use desalination plants to increase water supply or should households just reduce their consumption? Are private water companies even doing enough to reduce leaks or prevent wastewater discharges into our rivers? The debates persist but these are ‘wicked’ problems which defy simple answers. In 2019 a team of interdisciplinary researchers from water@leeds set out to scope the most important global water research questions for the coming decades. The outcome was about 4000 proposed questions from research participants from more than 80 countries, which were systematised and revised using the NVivo software. We further interviewed academics and practitioners from a wide range of disciplines from hydrology, civil engineering, environmental science, economics and anthropology. We employed this approach to refine and identify a list of 100 indicative questions organised under six big questions. In the published paper in the One Earth Journal, titled, “The top 100 global water questions”, we thus intend to start a conversation with the global water sector on priorities for future research: research that could contribute to tackling the scale and nature of human-water interactions in the context of climate change. These six big questions are: (i) What are the characteristics of water supply and sanitation systems that provide sustainable access to clean water and sanitation for all? (ii) What are the pathways to improve water and sanitation safety and risk management in human settlements? (iii) How can the competing demands of different water users be reconciled? (iv) What are the dynamics and interrelationships between hydrology, ecosystems and human-induced changes on land, water, biota, and climate? (v) What are the critical challenges for the governance of human interactions with water? (vi) How can water and sanitation research from multiple disciplines collectively work with governance systems to inform policy and human actions?

In 2019 a team of researchers from water@leeds set out to scope the most important global water research questions for the coming decades

These questions capture the scale and complexity of human-water interactions. Questions 1 and 2 confront the technical, economic, political and social nature of providing the recognised (but unmet) human right to adequate water and sanitation for all, whilst preventing and addressing contamination of wider ecosystems. Question 3 reminds us that competition for water between human needs, populations and the wider ecosystem is an inherent and critical challenge and that competing demands must be reconciled to avoid conflict, damage and exploitation. Question 4 draws attention to the planetary interactions of water, climate and ecosystems and the impact that human activities are having on them. These four questions taken together link each human being to planetary hydrological dynamics.

Questions 5 and 6 cut across all these scales to ask where and how human collective action can address the challenges set out in questions 1-4.  Current governance arrangements for water and sanitation are failing everywhere.  They are failing to ensure that all human beings have access to adequate water and sanitation. They are failing to resolve competing demands which means the most powerful grab and pollute water resources with little fear of punishment. In pretending that the management and governance of water is a technical question of the right infrastructure, economics, and institutions (see SDG 6.5.1), they are failing to recognise that resolving wicked problems has a fundamentally political dimension.

Perhaps by combining the collective and interdisciplinary capacity of the global water sector can we bring our knowledge and research power together to work with powerful actors to untangle these wicked problems. These 6 big questions grant us a language to do this. But we must combine the power of all disciplines and not ignore difficult political choices.

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