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World Water Day 2017: Research Stories Part II

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 investigate the state of the field.

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

Jacob D. Petersen-Perlman, co-author of ‘International water conflict and cooperation: challenges and opportunities‘.

I grew more interested with water conflict and cooperation as I became aware of the complexities involving the social, environmental, and economic demands placed on water and how those demands may lead to conflict. Efforts to meet demands on water continually create new challenges, particularly when water resources cross political boundaries. Economic development, population growth, poorly managed and understood water systems, climate change, and globalized trade are just some of the issues we face today.

“Sometimes, even informal agreements can hold significance in managing international waters.”

I have learnt that many of the political difficulties surrounding shared waters do not necessarily involve environmental constraints, but rather choices in management. Water management institutions, particularly in developing countries, often lack the resources to develop, implement, and enforce comprehensive management plans successfully. Parties must determine whether the opportunities that may come from signing a cooperative agreement will outweigh the risks of non-cooperation. Sometimes, even informal agreements can hold significance in managing international waters. However, many of these agreements exclude cultural and economic differences, as well as regional and local voices. These omissions can lead to future conflict if left unaddressed.

As demands increase on increasingly variable and scarce water resources, it becomes ever more important to find ways in which different users can cooperate. I wish to continue investigations on how users can build relationships to manage and use water in a collaborative, equitable, and just manner.

Jonathan Gilligan, co-author of ‘Drinking water insecurity: water quality and access in coastal south-western Bangladesh.

Our paper tested the 2015 finding that 85% of the public in Bangladesh had access to safe drinking water. We studied several rural communities in Southwestern Bangladesh, combining social and natural sciences to understand regional and seasonal variation in water security.

Members of our team spent many weeks in the field over several years, conducting interviews and surveys to learn where households got their water, and we measured water quality in both rainy and dry seasons. Many of us did not speak Bengali, but we were fortunate to work closely with talented Bangladeshi researchers.

“…most residents did not know that their water was unsafe.”

The most surprising and disturbing result of this research was discovering that, in the communities we studied, there was almost no reliable year-round access to safe drinking water, while most residents did not know that their water was unsafe. Even when almost all water was unhealthily salty and had unsafe levels of arsenic and other chemicals, most people reported that the water tasted good and used it regularly.

“…there are serious regional and seasonal water insecurities that do not show up on national reports.” 

This study identifies two challenges for water security in Bangladesh. Firstly, that there are serious regional and seasonal water insecurities that do not show up on national reports; and secondly, that communities with unsafe water may not realize it. Fixing a problem begins with knowing that there is a problem, so we are working with colleagues in Bangladesh to extend this research to many more communities and to raise awareness of water insecurity.

Carlos A. López-Morales, co-author of ‘The global economic costs of the need to treat polluted water‘.

As a research team, we explore the sustainability of water use within different economic systems. We are interested in the links between the availability of water and other natural resources, the use of alternative technologies, and international trade, assessing their combined roles in promoting sustainable economic and social development.

In this study, we estimate global costs for treating water withdrawals in different regions of the world. Its main contribution is to consider wastewater treatment and reuse within an economic framework. This framework allows us to deal systematically with some of the challenges imposed by water scarcity and the contamination of water sources in an economic system.

“We hope that our study helps to promote deeper interdisciplinary collaborations…”

We hope that our study helps to promote deeper interdisciplinary collaborations, integrating physical and economic aspects in the analysis of scenarios for sustainable development. Our high estimates for the global economic costs of wastewater treatment should help make the case for improved water management.