Anik Bhaduri interview — ‘Water Future’: a global platform facilitating international scientific collaboration

An interview with Anik Bhaduri, executive director of the Sustainable Water Future Programme and an Associate Professor at Australian River Institute at Griffith University. He speaks about Water Future, a global environmental program renowned for its expertise and innovation in water research, policy, security and sustainability.

Anik also is a senior fellow at Centre of Development Research at the University of Bonn and was previously an executive officer of Global Water Systems Project. With a background in environmental and natural resource economics, he specialises in water resource management. He has worked on several projects, ranging from transboundary water sharing to adaptive water management in response to climate change.

Interview topics

  • Water Future — the global scientific water knowledge platform
  • What Water Future does
  • The Global Water Systems Project’s Water Solutions Lab
  • An example of a local water solutions lab in Bengaluru, India
  • The Compass initiative
  • Gender equality, social inclusion, and the SDGs
  • 2030 Water Secure: a capacity development program for young water professionals
  • The 2019 Global Water Futures and Sustainable Development conference in Canberra on World Water Day

Anik Bhaduri, tell us about yourself and how the global platform, ‘Water Future’ came to be

I’m a mathematical economist working on environment and resource economics problems. My PhD was on transboundary water, working out different game theory strategies that could be used by transboundary countries that share rivers, and how to mitigate conflict between them so they can share benefits among themselves. After that, I joined the Global Water System Project in Bonn, as an executive director.

The Global Water System Project (GWSP), on which Water Future builds, addresses how human impacts are affecting the world’s water systems and what linkages and interlinkages there are between the human component, the physical hydrological component, and the biological component. These determine not only water availability but also water quality and the nutrient cycle.

Before that, water had always been talked about as a local problem and the solutions attempted were always local. But water problems are not always local, they are global problems, as water is a key component of the Earth’s global hydrological cycle and not only a local good. The GWSP was one of the core projects of the Global Environmental Change Program. There were four Global Environmental Change Programs, starting in the 1970s: they were the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program; the International Human Dimensions Program; the World Climate Research Program; and one on biodiversity, called DIVERSITAS. Each program focused on particular aspects of global change and climate change. The programs were also instrumental in forming the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). These global change programs asked: What are the feedback elements for the ways in which climate change and global change are taking shape? The water program is a core part of these global change programs as hydrological variability plays a very significant role in global change and climate change. Considering 80% of climate change effects come from hydrological variability, which is connected to the water cycle; and considering regulations in terrestrial ecosystems, including land use.

Around 2013, all the global change programs merged into one international science collaboration platform, called ‘Future Earth’. This is a science and technological alliance for global sustainability. The GWSP evolved into the ‘Sustainable Water Future Program’, and that short name in use is ‘Water Future’ to get rid of acronyms.

What is Water Future doing? What is its mandate?

Water Future’s mandate now is not just to find the problems that exist at a global level. We also are applying advanced scientific knowledge to implement action. We focus on conducting innovative research and knowledge synthesis; comprehensive analysis of the world’s water systems; and building capacity for the next generation of scientists and practitioners.

The structure of Water Future has been adjusted so we can become more action orientated. It has twelve working groups formed from international communities. and two more are joining soon — water and health — as well as mountains and climate change. They work on topics ranging from groundwater; to environmental flows; to water ethics; to water governance.

Our objective is to harvest the knowledge that exists in different parts of the world and then synthesise that knowledge and feed it into different initiatives that can properly serve different countries, different regions and address the global agenda set by the UN and others. We also aim to embed this thinking into a global and original perspective.

Water Future’s connection with Australia is very strong, with the International Secretariat moving here, to Brisbane, from Germany in early 2016. From Australia, we can focus on the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions, whereas previously we were focused mainly in Africa and other places where there is also severe water scarcity.

Various initiatives are emerging as outcomes of our synthesising exercise. The initiatives are cross-governed by different teams, aiming to address the global agenda. They are innovative combinations of ‘state-of-the-art’ science and information technology. They are very much design-orientated, working on good design with practitioners and different stakeholders. They focus also on implementation — so they have a regional focus.

One of the initiatives is a comprehensive assessment, called ‘Compass’. Other initiatives are the Water Solutions Labs we are developing in various regions, water governance initiatives, and capacity development, which we are working on with the United Nations University.

Can you tell us more about the Water Solutions Lab?

There is an apparent disconnection between knowledge generators and knowledge implementers, as the water problems and solutions are often identified in silos. Many solutions in their design do not consider the problems themselves and instead, they take an overview of the problems and design different solutions. However, even at a policy level, many of the solutions that have been designed are not addressing the root causes of problems.

During the GWSP, we found that while examining freshwater or sediment management problems at the catchment level, the intended solutions do not address the root causes of the problems. The solutions are targeted in areas where they have only marginal beneficial effects to reduce the problems of the overall catchment.

Here, the Water Solutions Lab aims to act as a matchmaker. The water solutions lab team identifies a rational solution strategy and does a simultaneous or indicative problem assessment, in multiple dimensions, from the perspectives of multiple stakeholders.

When we are doing an integrated problem assessment, we consider socio-economic, ecological, hydrological, biological and governance aspects. We bring all these components together in the problem assessment, together with the multiple stakeholder perspectives.

Then, when it comes to applying solutions, again we do a  multi-criteria solution assessment because a solution can have different perspectives and criteria. There may be economic criteria. There may be timing or longevity criteria — for instance, some solutions will have deficiencies that make them ineffective after a few years.

The water solutions labs rate the various criteria and the various solutions, from the perspective of stakeholders, the people on the ground. And if there are any deficiencies, the Water Solutions Lab will try to resolve them.

How can we address those gaps in the solutions? By looking at the root causes of the problems. Therefore, the end result is not simply one solution for several problems but different solutions for different problems and different regions. By examining the root causes of some problems, we hope to solve other problems as well. In short, the Water Solutions Lab takes a holistic look at both problems and solutions.

The lab is implementing knowledge. We are harvesting and synthesising knowledge that has been produced and that exists in many areas and applying it in a way that is needed by society. I would say the Water Solutions Lab is a very demand-orientated initiative. Its structure, approach, and focus depend on the end-user.

An example

In response to interest from the Indian Government, we are establishing a water solutions lab in India to address the water scarcity problems in the city of Bengalaru. The city has 10 million people and there are predictions that the city will run out of water in five to ten years’ time. So, with multiple stakeholders and partners, we are setting up a solutions lab there. The Indian Institute of Science, Bengalaru; the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry; and many other partners are all involved. The products will be a digital information repository solutions, water solution strategy reports, capacity development, and a very local level water state index. These will engage different stakeholders and policy dialogues at the local level, helping them identify what they need to do if a water crisis emerges in the city. These knowledge products will be accessible by the public. The digital information reports will be in the public domain.

Currently, this water solutions lab is at the stage of extensive stakeholder dialogue to produce a vision document that will set out the way for the lab to be designed to meet the needs in Bengaluru.

Tell us about the tool, Compass, which ‘detects, evaluates and reports on existing, imminent, and emerging water resource challenges’.

There have been many advances and global and regional assessments made by the scientific community globally, but we think that there are continuous interactions between global change and local change, and many feedbacks and interlinkages. Therefore, we think assessment data that are, say, five years old cannot necessarily be relied on in policy-making because things are changing very fast.

Compass aims to capture a real-time analysis of what’s going on. It’s a systems assessment and it includes the ecological perspective, the hydrological perspective, the governance perspective — they are all embedded together and Compass captures that. It has several products, which are designed with a dynamic approach, given these kinds of demands, to make a continuous assessment rather than single-time snapshots.

Compass is tailored to the demands of society and different users: such as for infrastructure planning, identifying business opportunities, how we can assess a city’s progress, and so on. You can think of it as tracking our systems in terms of water so that it can help and guide implementations of suitable actions. It is a near-real-time index of the global water resources expressed in a standardised form, like a Dow Jones index made for water.

We intend Compass to produce a six-month water outlook. It will combine weather forecasts with a prediction of water use and current and forecasted economic activities. It will also do scenario analyses for the medium-term and the long-term for infrastructure planning at a very fine resolution. We can tune in and knowing the GDP distribution, see how many people are vulnerable to water stress at a grid-scale of, say, a 5 km resolution, or even less.

At the World Water Forum in March 2018, we showcased some of the prototype products, like the near-real-time water state index and we showed the results of an index covering 2009 to February 2018. We also displayed prototypes showing how we can predict hotspots for water conflict and involuntary population disbursement in real-time. We showed prototypes for investment opportunities, threats to rivers, climate variability, and negative inverse impacts of investments in natural capital. That demonstrated where we bring in investment, where we can do reinvestments, which show the areas where there are good returns, and so on.

Currently, we are developing Compass further, with prototypes that can assess populations under water stress; the coping capacity of the population; a water pollution index; investment opportunities in green infrastructures; and the state of water for the environment in terms of environmental flow alteration.

In about one year’s time, we hope to be running pilot projects in different regions: Latin America, India, Brazil, and so on. These projects will work with international agencies to check for ground truth and many other things. They will involve extensive regional consultations, with the objective of customising Compass to suit the needs of its potential users.

The data used in Compass will be global, continuous, and near-real-time (one-month latency).

Have you any observations or comments about gender equality and social inclusion?

Gender issues are particularly relevant to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially Goals 6.1 and 6.2. That is clear if you look at who are the users of water. In many households, women are the main users of water. In agriculture too, women are stepping into the roles of smallholders and farm labourers because men are leaving agriculture and migrating to the cities, leaving the agricultural land to women.

Water is strongly connected to gender issues. Women and men have different needs for water; they have different hygiene needs, and so on. The problem is that many of the indicators we have for the SDGs do not reflect that difference in water needs. There needs to be more emphasis on gender in policy-making at the national level.

Currently, the pace of progress in SDG implementation in most countries, particularly Africam is not enough to achieve universal basic water services and sanitation by 2030. Of the 10 countries where at least 20 per cent of the national population uses limited services (with water collection times exceeding 30 minutes), eight are in sub-Saharan Africa. Women and girls are responsible for water collection in 8 out of 10 households with water off-premises. Therefore, reducing the vulnerability of the population to water security risks, from climate change and also local changes, will have a strong gender impact.

Tools being built by Water Future are intended to capture data to support gender equality and social inclusion.

One of our new initiatives is on water governance and management systems. It’s still in the design phase. We are doing a state-of-the-art diagnosis to assess current functional performance and resilience in governance and management systems and to identify the governance gaps that exist at a very local level. That is an area where gender issues are important.

Water Future will gather the gender-disaggregated data, incorporate it, and see the functional performance of the governance systems to address the gaps. This is being done at a local level, by the solutions labs. But, all these initiatives are connected to one another. They all work ‘hand in hand’ with each other.

Do you have any messages for young water professionals who want to join this dynamic and growing industry?

We learn a lot from young researchers. There’s a need for capacity development and for better connections to enable knowledge to flow from science to practice and practice to science. It involves mentoring the next generation of water scientists and practitioners, who will focus together on key planning challenges, adopting and capitalising on the best state-of-the-art science, technology and water assessment tools and promoting expanded use of integrated and ecosystem-based approaches for the design of future water security systems. Water Future is developing a capacity development program for young researchers along with United Nations University. It is called ‘2030 Water Secure’. It is an innovative vision to develop capacity by combining state-of-the-art water knowledge with modern, personalised communication tools in order to tackle the 21st-century water challenges and facilitate effective implementation of the 2030 Water Agenda. Water Secure has several components, including drinking water, ecosystems, natural hazards, transboundary water, urban water. The underpinning concept to understand this water security is through the lens of water risk.

Our capacity-building initiative will look into the understanding of water risk: how we assess water risk, and how we implement different institutional technological solutions to any particular water risk.

It brings science, policy, and practice together so that young practitioners can train in some component of this to learn what’s going on the UN and how it is relevant, as well as practical aspects. We aim to launch this at the end of this year (2018). People can find out more online at our website, http://water-future.org, and through UN web platforms.

Tell us about your conference in Canberra in 2019, ‘Global Water Futures and Sustainable Development’.

Water Future and Future Earth, Australia is organising this conference in Canberra next year. The Water Future international secretariat has been based in Australia now for two years and we are eager to cater to the Australian water community. So, we are organising a conference next year around World Water Day, which is being publicly announced at the end of June 2018.

The conference is called ‘Global Water Futures and Sustainable Development’, and its objective is to focus on how the global water science community can face the different challenges in our water systems in real-time, and how we can open up new frontiers for innovative solutions.

The program aims to focus on the current state of water resources — What are the future pathways and scenarios? and What solutions might be possible to enable technological institutions to accelerate the implementation of the SDGs?

There’s an obvious need to accelerate action and to bring the community together and this conference will help put the science community into direct contact with the international policy consultation process. The launch of the 2019 United Nations World Water Development Report, which has the working title ‘Leaving no one behind’, will be released at this conference.

We would like to invite water sector people in Australia and the members of the Australian Water Partnership, to attend this conference. People who want to attend will be able to check details on our website. We will open abstract submission in July.

This interview and related content was originally part of the Kini Interview Series. Kini is a retired brand of the AWP and IWCAN

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