Water science and technology, multiplying research through collaborations

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By Hong Li*

The water crisis remains one of the top five global risks, according to the recently published World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2017. Water is a risk of high likelihood and high impact that is closely linked to the other most serious risks identified in the report, including extreme weather events, major natural disasters and a failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Water professionals, from all areas of the water sector, and in all regions of the world, find themselves at the centre of this crisis, and are increasingly being called upon to deliver solutions to it. The sector’s response is complicated by a disconnect between the leading science and technology research, and water utilities, cities and river basins where it might be applied to solve the challenges facing water resource management.

How do we address the potential risks involved in this disconnect? Firstly, we need to identify the needs of different stakeholders because this is key to guiding development of water science and technologies; secondly, we need to find ways to better connect the research and practice silos within the water sector; and thirdly, we must work with a broader group of stakeholders, inside and outside the sector, including social scientists and citizens groups, to promote the positive value of water.

Current developments in water science and technology are often dependent on what has been evolving in other sectors, such as advanced decision systems, ICT or biotechnologies. These emerging technologies are often disruptive. This requires water professionals to be aware of advances taking place and to learn from other sectors. Collaboration is critical to finding solutions in an increasingly interconnected world.

A recent meeting of science and technology leaders, convened by the IWA, re-confirmed the importance of collaborations. Participants identified six areas on which water professionals must focus to enhance water science and technology:

Optimisation and efficiency gains in current practices

Rebuilding all existing infrastructures is not realistic. Small infrastructural changes that incorporate novel technologies, better instrumentation and automation to improve efficiency, could provide an alternative in many places.

Role of data, information and communication technologies

Data science and communication technologies will increasingly contribute to process design and improvements to consumer engagement, transparency, compliance and to greater efficiency. For this paradigm shift to take place, capacity building and changes to management practices will be necessary.

Building resilience in the face of uncertainty and rapid change

In an era of great climate and hydrological uncertainty, we must build resilience by placing greater emphasis on risk and vulnerability assessments, indices for resilience, embedding natural capital in our systems, and through customer-centric approaches.

Demonstrating the value of water for productivity and economic growth

If the value of water is to be fully appreciated, we need the tools to engage and inform consumers in a way that leads to changed behaviours. The positive value of water has to be promoted by water utilities, but must also reach outside of the water community.

Improving livability through public and environmental health

To improve livability requires good public and environmental health, supported by sound scientific and technical evidence. This needs to be translated into meaningful public discourse. Social science research and financial analysis are important to demonstrate and quantify benefits to customers, the environment and economy.

Influencing policy and regulation through science and technology

Science and technology have an important role to play influencing policy and regulation. This is best achieved through multi-stakeholder and cross-sector collaborations. In order to influence policy, we need a vision, evidence-based approaches, and guidance on how to do it.

Informing different stakeholders in other sectors on the global trends and challenges in water science, technology and management, is a critical first step. IWA Specialist Groups have recently developed a compendium identifying the hot topics, innovations and global water trends that will have impact in solving water challenges.

This is one example of how the IWA is uniquely placed to bring together different stakeholders, and create stronger impact through science and innovation to better influence policy. Multi-stakeholder dialogues on different topics and in different regions can further enhance collaborations, and create stronger research impact through its applications in both policy and practice.

*Hong Li is the manager for Science, Technology and Specialist Groups at the International Water Association.