Moving toward genuine water security

Professor Bakker is an organizer and speaker for the AAAS symposium Water Security: Multidisciplinary Responses to a Global Challenge, Friday, Feb. 17, 1:30 – 4:30 p.m., and a topical speaker on the same subject.

Without integrated water management, communities are vulnerable

Why worry about water security? Take, for example, the case of Hurricane Katrina: the largest natural disaster ever to occur in the continental United States, and a tragic example of the consequences of water insecurity. The aftermath of the Hurricane in New Orleans clearly demonstrated the need for integrated watershed planning to deal with flood risk, and the interrelationship between land use and water use. Without integrated water management, more communities may be increasingly vulnerable to extreme hydrological events (which are predicted to increase in frequency and amplitude under many climate change scenarios).

Improving water security requires integrated, interdisciplinary research at the appropriate scales that can be of use to policy-makers. Ontario’s new water management framework is a good example. Responding to the Walkerton E-coli contamination incident in 2000 causing seven deaths and thousands to fall ill, the new Clean Water Act establishes a framework for “source water protection,” in which ground and surface water sources are protected on a watershed basis .A new governance approach—with an unprecedented degree of collaboration between land-users, water suppliers and policy makers—has been developed.

The science is lagging when it comes to integration

Despite the recognition by policy-makers of the need for integration, scientific research on water security remains fragmented. Research has ramped up in recent years, yet no standardized definition or agreed-upon assessment methods exist. Our review of the literature indicates that over 400 water security publications have been published over the past two decades, in over 20 disciplines. But there is no apparent trend towards integration:  In many instances, scientific assessments were conducted at scales that are not meaningful for the implementation of management solutions.

In short, it seems that the scientific agenda is lagging. There are, of course, exceptions, such as the Canadian Water Network’s interdisciplinary mandate and the launch of Harvard’s Water Security Initiative in 2010. But these are exceptions that prove the rule.

Without such a research agenda, the gaps and overlaps that characterize water security research will continue. To take just one example: our recent survey found that over 350 fresh-water related indicators have been developed by government and university scientists in Canada. Our survey also found that almost none of these indicators are being used because they do not provide the integrated assessment that policy-makers and water managers are demanding.

How might we construct such a research agenda? We could begin with an integrative definition of water security: sustainable access, on a watershed basis, to adequate quantities of water of acceptable quality, to ensure human and ecosystem health. This definition implies that assessments of water security need to incorporate both human health and ecosystem variables. Moreover, the assessment of the drivers of water insecurity requires risk assessment of ‘built’ and ‘natural’ systems (or approaches which do away with this increasingly artificial divide).

Social scientists need to be equal partners

Finally, water security assessment should incorporate governance, but not through bringing in social scientists as an after-thought, or assigning them the role of ‘knowledge disseminators’. Governance, as anyone living in a large third world city will tell you, is a major contributor to water insecurity. Good governance is a precondition for the technological capacity to respond and minimize threats to water security . Accordingly, research agendas involving collaboration between medical and natural scientists must incorporate social scientists as equal partners.This will, in turn, foster the participation of stakeholders and policy-makers in research design, which is one of the most efficient approaches to orienting science towards the needs of those who need it most: water and land managers.

The take-home message: physical and social scientists need to develop collaborative approaches to integrated water assessment, beginning with a broader vision of water security. The first step: moving out of our respective silos.

Related topics:

UBC Reports | Vol. 58 | No. 1 | Jan. 3, 2012

Professor Bakker is an organizer and speaker for the AAAS symposium Water Security: Multidisciplinary Responses to a Global Challenge, Friday, Feb. 17, 1:30 – 4:30 p.m., and a topical speaker on the same subject. Martin Dee Photograph

Professor Bakker is an organizer and speaker for the AAAS symposium Water Security: Multidisciplinary Responses to a Global Challenge, Friday, Feb. 17, 1:30 – 4:30 p.m., and a topical speaker on the same subject. Martin Dee Photograph

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“The rate of publications on water security has increased significantly over the past five years, but only a handful of studies conduct integrated assessments.”

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