Emerging research agendas in hydro-social sustainability science

Confluence in water research
Confluence - can interdisciplinary research shed new light on water challenges? Photo: Sam Beebe via Flickr
Oct 2014

Emerging interdisciplinary research takes an integrated approach to the challenges of water security.

The field of sustainability science evolves through and depends on existing disciplines coming together. Defined by the problems it addresses rather than the disciplines it employs, sustainability science often builds on research agendas that are able to incorporate several angles of a problem to arrive at solutions that are as holistic as possible.  Sustainability scientists often work at the intersection of multiple disciplines, where definitions of concepts and analytical approaches are variable and contested.  This challenge is pronounced in discussions of water security, one currently popular framing of sustainability in water.

Since it was used at the World Water Forum in 2000, the term ‘water security’ has gained prominence in policy discussions and academic studies; it has been adopted and defined by multiple scientific disciplines, both social and natural. However a closer look at the usage of the term reveals that ‘water security’ means different things to different people. Different disciplines use distinct, and at times incommensurable, methods and scales of analysis to study water security. The use of ‘water security’ in different regions of the world reflects differences in water availability and geopolitical contexts. In China water security is focused on quantity and pollution levels; in Australia, water security is about water availability; and links between water security and geopolitical stability are emphasized in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Recently, in the policy literature on water security, we have seen a convergence around the “nexus”, typically understood as the water-food-energy security nexus, but sometimes including or substituting climate, health, and land. The nexus is a way to frame problem analysis and attend to the complicated relationships between the production of, and access to, water, energy and food. Policy groups, such as the Global Water Partnership, want to mobilize the concept of the nexus to overcome traditional challenges in improving water governance such as fragmentation between sectors (e.g. energy, agriculture, municipal, waste management, and manufacturing). Fragmentation can refer to duplication, gaps, or overlaps in authority for management of water (in this case) that can result in poor management outcomes that may or may not have immediate effects on the general public. These effects may be seen when development decisions are made separately from allocation decisions.

In the academic literature, convergence on water security and nexus research may come through two emerging research agendas. Socio-eco-hydrology and urban political ecology are two approaches to water challenges which aim to develop a more integrated approach to solving water problems which are increasingly located at the urban scale. The two research agendas are led by natural and social scientists respectively, but crucially both adopt the notion of the hydro-social cycle – a broad view that considers humans part of the dynamics of the water cycle. Traditional approaches to water management have concentrated on the natural environment, often without consideration of how humans mediate the water cycle (by paving surfaces, moving water great distances through distribution networks and using water as a way to manage waste). Socio-eco-hydrology is a quantitative science that seeks to understand the coevolution and self-organization of people and vegetation in the landscape in relation to water availability. The socio-eco-hydrology agenda provides richer data on water availability and quality, based on models that include the role of humans in water cycle dynamics.

Urban political ecology seeks to disrupt deterministic readings of urban environmental problems that do not account for the impact of humans on uneven development (e.g. understanding why marginalized communities have less access to nature or natural amenities) and explores possibilities for transformative change by analyzing the power and politics of urban development. Moreover, the urban political ecology agenda interrogates the politics of decision-making regarding water access at various scales of inquiry. Attention to the scale of decision-making in water is critical as water transcends boundaries, allowing management problems to be easily displaced.

For research on water security, specifically the convergence of water security themes in the water-energy-food nexus, these two research agendas are complementary. Each of these agendas enriches the way in which we understand hydro-social cycles. Better long-term predictions about coupled human-water systems may facilitate better management and governance decisions. Together they can bring new insights to resolving water insecurities around the world – approaching problems from more than one direction offers critical insight and depth of understanding. But convergence in sustainability science doesn’t mean that everyone should work on the same problems in the same way. A closer look at both of these fields shows the depth of expertise in disciplinary research from which new interdisciplinary agendas emerge.