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Mark Smith (IWMI): "The attention water receives in global discourse on climate change is limited”

  • Mark Smith (IWMI): "The attention water receives in global discourse on climate change is limited”
  • Based in Sri Lanka’s capital, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) is a non-profit research organization working on developing innovative, scientifically tested water management solutions for sustainable development.

About the entity

International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) is a non-profit, scientific research organization focusing on the sustainable use of water and land resources in developing countries. IWMI is the lead center for the CGIAR Research Program on Water

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Working towards a ‘water-secure world,’ IWMI, launched in 1984, works with governments, farmers, water managers, development partners and businesses to solve water-related issues and scale-up solutions. In June, the organization was awarded the 2020 Water Award from Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation for its development of water solutions in support of some of the world’s poorest populations. Every year, the Monaco-based charity created by Prince Albert II of Monaco presents a yearly award to key figures for their exemplary action in favour of the environment and the protection of the planet. We had the chance to speak with Mark Smith, the newly appointed Director-General of IWMI, to discuss what it means for the group to win this prestigious award and its plans looking forward.

Question: What does it mean for IWMI to receive the 2020 Water Award from the Prince Albert II of Monaco?

Answer: I think we can say on behalf of the whole water community how grateful we are that the Foundation recognises the global water challenge alongside biodiversity and climate. By conferring its Water Award, the Foundation raises awareness and ensures that water is more fully embedded in global dialogues on development, on climate, and conservation. And by conferring this award on IWMI, the Foundation inspires us and redoubles our commitment to delivering water solutions for sustainable development.

COVID-19 underlines the importance of water for hygiene. And, in that sense the important message is the need for resilience in WASH

The Foundation is dedicated to advocating for the protection of the environment and the promotion of sustainable development. We believe that water is central to these global challenges; they are causes that drive our priorities at IWMI.


Farmer pumping groundwater for his field in rural Pakistan. Faseeh Shams / IWMI

Q: As a recipient of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Water Award, how do you think this will shed a light on water resource management for sustainable development?

A: It continues to be surprising how limited the attention water receives in the global discourse on climate change relative to its huge significance to the issues at stake. It’s largely through water that most people ‘experience’ climate change: through unpredictable rainfall, droughts and floods, and the disruption this is bringing and will bring to our food systems, drinking water supplies and our connectivity.

Even the Paris Agreement on Climate Change all but ignores water. The good news is that the Global Commission on Adaptation launched at the UN General Assembly last year includes a chapter focussed on water, but this was only achieved after intensive lobbying.

We can ‘Build Back Better’ with WASH services designed to be more resilient to shocks including pandemics and climate change

Recognition of IWMI’s work by the Prince Albert II Foundation underlines the importance of balancing all of society’s water needs at the same time, ensuring that the poorest people do not get left behind. It is, after all, the most vulnerable and the most marginalized that will suffer the worst effects of water shortages and water-related natural disasters, such as floods and drought. With most of the sub-Saharan African agriculture being rain-fed (meaning non-irrigated), the risks are clear, especially when you understand that the majority of that food production is by smallholder farmers.


Sprinkler irrigation used on cabbage farm in Sri Lanka. Hamish John Appleby / IWMI

Q: Human rights advocates warn that the global pandemic threatens efforts to end water poverty by 2030. What is your opinion?

A: Billions of people still lack access to safe water and sanitation, resulting in needless deaths, chronic disease, missed education and reduced productivity.

COVID-19 underlines the importance of water for hygiene. And, in that sense, the important message is the need for resilience in WASH. We need to sustainably manage the resource (water) in addition to delivering access (pipes and taps). We can ‘Build Back Better’ with WASH services that are designed to be more resilient to shocks including pandemics and of course climate change and more mindful of resource sustainability. So, whatever happens, we need to ensure that the water keeps flowing despite growing scarcity and shock-induced uncertainty.

The Foundation is dedicated to advocating for the protection of the environment and the promotion of sustainable development

Recovery from the pandemic will also require effective water management that reinforces the stability of disrupted food systems. In some areas, lockdowns have impacted agricultural cycles, interrupting supplies of inputs, depressing demand and keeping workers away from fields and factories.


Farming in Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka.  Hamish John Appleby / IWMI

Q: What measures and resolutions do you think are necessary to get the SDG 6 back on track?

A: The pandemic is revealing the importance of resilience. Water resources management and water research will make important contributions to this agenda.

Firstly, we need to address weak and fragmented government structures in particular where pressures on water resources are greatest. We need good governance of water, implemented through effective institutions that assure participation, transparency, integrity and accountability. These institutions need investment and sustainable financing for infrastructure needed to bring safe water to people, to store, clean and recycle water, to manage water risks and the risks of water-related disasters, and to ensure the sustainability of the source and ecosystems that supply water. We need to focus on more circular systems that effectively reuse wastewater.

By conferring this award on IWMI, the Foundation redoubles our commitment to delivering water solutions for sustainable development

And we need to focus on more efficient use of water in agriculture. Saving just a fraction of agricultural withdrawals could significantly alleviate water stress in other sectors.

Lastly, credible, and timely data are essential to the realization of the SDGs, as they help decision-makers to identify countries, people and sectors that are left behind, and set priorities for increased efforts and investments.

The latest round of data compilation for SDG 6 – ‘water and sanitation for all’ – is the 2020 Data Drive. There are some data gaps that this aims to address.

The IWMI e-flow model was adopted as the official global means for countries to report on levels of water stress within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 6.4.2) “Level of water stress: freshwater withdrawal as a proportion of available freshwater resources.” IWMI environmental flow (E-flow) assessments give quick, accessible information of the quantity, quality and timing of water flows needed to sustain a freshwater ecosystem.

Flow estimations have taken on a strategic role in the efforts of developing countries to keep their rivers healthy and to plan the management of water resources in major river basins, and they have now also been launched onto the global stage.

An important point is that whatever we do to get SDG 6 back on track we need to adopt an integrated systems approach with climate-resilient solutions that take into account water security together with food security, energy and health.

Q: How do you think new technologies such as remote-sensing and data management solutions can help companies and communities better manage their water?

A: Gaps in knowledge and information hold back the world’s ability to respond to growing water challenges and meet the SDGs. Water data are often insufficient, of uncertain quality, inaccessible or simply non-existent in many developing countries. Yet, technologies for data collection ‒ such as satellites, sensors and mobile phone applications ‒ are generating vast quantities of information on the world’s river systems, aquifers, watersheds and freshwater ecosystems, in addition to data on the ways in which these water systems are accessed and used by people.

Recovery from the pandemic will also require effective water management that reinforces the stability of disrupted food systems

IWMI, with IHE Delft and FAO, has worked over the past 15 years to develop an innovative water accounting approach (WA+) based on the use of freely available Earth observation data, combined within an open-source, open access modelling framework.

Water accounting quantifies how much water is available in a given area, how much is used and by what sector, and then how much is left for more productive use in agriculture and other sectors. Some form of water accounting is critical to manage the resource sustainably and to ensure that it is used efficiently and allocated transparently and equitably.


Women engaged in paddy transplanting. Pyawt Ywar Irrigation Scheme, Myinmu Township, Sagaing District, Myanmar. Sanjiv de Silva / IWMI

Q: IWMI has been working for many years on how wastewater can be safely used in agriculture. Could you tell us about some of the initiatives your organization is working on to create wealth from waste?

A: To actively promote a waste-based circular economy, IWMI researchers have developed over 20 innovative business models for domestic waste and wastewater management which reduce waste volumes and burdens and increase resource recovery for developing countries, like rural-urban freshwater-wastewater swaps. Low-cost, technical approaches pioneered by IWMI, and already taken up by public-private partnerships (PPP), include safe water reuse for crop and fish farming and the transformation of faecal sludge and organic waste into fuel briquettes and organically certified fertilized pellets.

At the global scale, IWMI has a long tradition in its support of WHO, USAID and FAO in the development of guidelines for safe wastewater re-use in agriculture, quantifying the benefits of farmer-led wastewater irrigation and exploring options for risk reduction from farm-to-fork.

Whatever we do to get SDG 6 back on track we need to adopt an integrated systems approach with climate resilient solutions

Q: Could you tell us a bit more about IWMI’s Water Secure Africa Initiative?

A: The Water Secure Africa Initiative is a partnership between IWMI and Digital Earth Africa (DEA). It organizes decades of satellite data, updated daily, into an analysis- ready format referred to as an “Open Data Cube”.

The African regional datacube represents a major step forwards by providing free and predictable ‘analysis-ready data’. IWMI is working with DEA and other partners around the cube to develop water resource management applications that will help end-users see practical benefits.

In particular, we are working with DEA to develop applications for water accounting as well as flood and drought management in some pilot countries. But there is huge potential to develop additional applications as well as spread the applications regionally in the coming years.

Beyond developing our own applications and working with partners, IWMI sees large potential to support an already growing data innovation community in Africa to develop water-related applications that would benefit their own countries, communities, and businesses.

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