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World Water Day 2017: Research Stories Part I

World Water Day (22 March) raises awareness of the global issues facing water today. With over 663 million people across the world living without a safe water supply close to home, the annual event marks the perfect opportunity to explore the themes it raises.

To go alongside our themed article collection, we asked several leading water researchers to offer their thoughts on the state of water today, and reflect on the significance of their research.

Nishtha Manocha, co-author of ‘Water Leaders Summit 2016: Future of World’s Water beyond 2030 – a retrospective analysis.

I am an engineer with a keen interest in policymaking. My doctoral research is focused on integrating sustainable practices into the framework of urban development. Working at this intersection of engineering and policymaking, I aim to both develop real solutions and look into ways in which they can be practically implemented in administrative frameworks.

“…decisions aiming to tackle climate change will always have to be made under the blanket of uncertainty.”

One big challenge facing engineers and policymakers today is designing economically viable infrastructure, able to adapt to uncertain climatic and socioeconomic futures. Yet decisions aiming to tackle climate change will always have to be made under the blanket of uncertainty. Years of industrialization, urbanization, and globalization make it impossible to predict with certainty what our climatic, demographic, and economic future will look like.

Water infrastructure is also large, capital intensive, and has a life span of at least a few decades. Traditional “predict then build” approaches, designed only for a plausible range of climatic and socio-economic scenarios, are inherently risky; they could build solutions that may not work in the future. For example, you may prepare for flood resilience but end up facing droughts 30 years later.

“There is a pressing need to develop strategies which support flexibility…”

It therefore becomes very difficult for planners and administrators to develop solutions for a long-term, uncertain future. There is a pressing need to develop strategies which support flexibility and react more tactically than traditional planning approaches. This will help to bridge the gap between highly uncertain and long-term climate change, and the short-term decision-making of urban planning and development.

Olivia Jensen, author of ‘Public–private partnerships for water in Asia: a review of two decades of experience‘.

I set out on my doctoral field research to examine the links between institutions and the outcomes of public-private partnerships (PPPs) in the water sector.

In this paper, I wanted to come back to the topic of water PPP in Asia and to consider its impact as a policy. Has PPP helped to achieve water policy objectives at the national level, or has it been implemented in only a few isolated cases?

“Categorizing and analyzing the different types of private players turned out to be a critical… part of the analysis.”

For this analysis, I drew on a new global database of PPPs. Categorizing and analyzing the different types of private players turned out to be a critical, and difficult, part of the analysis. This is partly because the world’s largest market for water PPPs is China, and the largest Chinese water companies are all state-owned enterprises.

Both local private companies and foreign companies have found it increasingly hard to retain a place in the market. Yet the presence of large numbers of state-owned enterprises in water provision appears to have contributed to massive increases in coverage for water and wastewater in both rural and urban areas of China.

“Many countries in Asia have not established a clear strategy to achieve their sustainable development goals.”

My hope is that with a stronger evidence base from this and other papers, governments can consider how tailored models of private sector participation might help them to achieve their sustainable development goals. Designing PPPs to achieve policy objectives for the sector, rather than simply maximizing private investment, would also deliver more sustainable, robust partnerships.

Scott M. Moore, author of  ‘The dilemma of autonomy: decentralization and water politics at the subnational level.

I started my graduate studies in geography, a discipline that looks at how humans relate to place and space. The problem of cooperating to manage rivers that flow across political boundaries is a classic geographic issue, involving a collision of human and natural systems. So I was really interested in trying to say something new and interesting about this problem. I became fascinated by how, despite all the attention given to the prospect that countries might fight over shared rivers, in fact some of the most persistent conflicts are political ones between sub-national jurisdictions like states and provinces. I became interested in trying to explain why that would be the case.

“This shows the importance of encouraging wide stakeholder participation to improve cooperation over shared water resources.”

In my paper, I look at the case of the Colorado River, explaining the growing level of cooperation in the basin between civil society organizations and the federal government. This shows the importance of encouraging wide stakeholder participation to improve cooperation over shared water resources. But there’s still lots more work to do, and I’d love to engage with other researchers and practitioners thinking about this problem.