Water management and research in the face of global change

By guest blogger Eva Flinkerbusch, Research Associate, Global Water System Project (GWSP), Germany

UN Photo/Kibae Park

The alarming state of the Earth’s freshwater resources calls for strategies to use water resources more wisely. We simply cannot continue to use water as wastefully as we have so far. But still, 20 years after the World Summit in Rio de Janeiro, little progress was made in the field of sustainable water resources management. Even worse, worries about ‘water security’ resound throughout the world these days.

What happened? In Rio, a prominent policy approach (Integrated Water Resources Management [IWRM]) was developed to stop poor water services and unsustainable resource use. This approach promoted water management to protect the world’s environment, foster economic growth and sustainable agricultural, promote democratic participation in governance, and improve human health. While this approach struggled (and still does) to overcome fragmented responsibility of water, the plot thickened. Today it all comes down to the ability to meet basic human and environmental needs. The modern term water security implies “the availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks to people, environments and economies.”

Global water crisis

The problem of water scarcity is going to escalate worldwide in the foreseeable future. Climate change is already changing precipitation patterns, with increased risk of droughts and floods. Global warming is causing glaciers to melt, which has enormous implications for many major river systems. Even though global warming and a potentially accelerated hydrologic cycle dominate the water-related climate change debate, many other – arguably more direct – anthropogenic factors redefine the state of rivers and drainage basins that supply freshwater to society. Especially widespread land use changes and pollution as well as population growth, urbanization, industrialization and last but not least poor water management affect large numbers of people and many ecosystems.  According to a Nature article entitled Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity’ threats to human water security and aquatic biodiversity are highly coherent. This linked human water security-biodiversity water challenge must be also addressed in our quest for sustainable development.

Sink or Swim (or: Which way out?)

All this has increased the awareness of uncertainties, the complexity of the systems to be managed, the need for changes in policy and management paradigms, as well as governance systems. Governments must lead the way in setting frameworks for improved water management while stakeholders on all levels have to be involved in finding and implementing solutions. Scientists have to provide and communicate the knowledge, information and options for action in a comprehensive way.

Research priorities for Global Sustainability

In order to provide knowledge leading to sustainable development, poverty eradication, and environmental protection in the face of global change, a list of the highest priorities for Earth system research, the so-called five grand challenges have been identified by the International Council for Science (ICSU) visioning process. These priorities for Earth system research provide an overarching research framework for scientists. But, once more, science cannot solve the water crisis without societal engagement and political will. Scientists and policy makers have a joint responsibility to work together in the development of more sustainable solutions to existing and emerging water problems.

Action has to be taken now.

Eva Flinkerbusch
Eva Flinkerbusch is Research Associate at the International Project Office (IPO) of the Global Water System Project (GWSP) based in Bonn, Germany.

If you are interested in this topic, please come to the PuP session ‘Water: integrated assessment, governance and management in changing conditions at global, regional and transboundary levels’ (Day 2: Options and Opportunities).

The Global Water System Project (GWSP) coordinates and supports a broad research agenda to study the complex global water system with its interactions between natural and human components and their feedback processes. Its mission is to understand the ways in which humans use the resources and influence the dynamics of the global water system and to advise decision-makers on how environmental and social consequences can be mitigated.

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One response to “Water management and research in the face of global change

  1. ‘Climate change is already changing precipitation patterns, with increased risk of droughts and floods’

    Can you give me a link to the peer-reviewed study that you based this claim upon?

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