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Bridging the gap between research and application of science-based solutions to tackle global water goals 

The United Nations 2023 Water Conference hopes to reinvest in action and reconnect scientific research with solution application to achieve SDG 6. Marine Meunier interviews two authors from the expert group from the ISC's latest policy brief, Heather O’Leary and Piet Kebanatho, on their expectations for the conference.

This blog is part of the ISC UN 2023 Water Conference Blog Series.

These uncertain times bring us many challenges, none more important that the rise of water crises – from water scarcity to hydrological extremes or pollution – we must reinforce and prioritize a strong dialogue between research-based solutions and political action. For the first time in nearly 50 years, the United Nations is holding a special conference on water, an event embedded in the Water Action Decade initiated in 2018.

The International Science Council (ISC) heeded this call to action and convened an Expert Group on water to develop a Policy Brief, calling for a more systematic dialogue between policy-makers and scientists on evidence-based policy options to support tangible actions, as well as tools to anticipate future water-related risks. The UN Water Conference carries strong hopes in improving this coordination, pledging the shift from research to action to be carried out.  

Water is a transdisciplinary issue, and implementation is lacking to reach water-related objectives.  

Water related challenges are not new, but they have increased, leading to drastic environmental changes, mass migration, and altered land use. The world is not on track to meet global water related targets defined in SDG 6 and other relevant SDGs. Water crises across the globe threaten the achievement of key development and environmental goals and ultimately all the SDGs, given the centrality of water in social, political and economic affairs across all scales. 

Among other criteria, SDG 6 aims to enable access to drinking water and sanitation for all, improve water quality, prevent waterborne health issues, and protect biodiversity. But we are far from meeting this goal, as two billion people are lacking access to safe water worldwide. Both ‘physical’ and ‘economic’ water scarcity highlight the vulnerability of certain territories, as much as precarious management of available resources or lack of funds and infrastructure needed for access to water. Sanitation and health are first in line, as tools to reduce sea plastics, clean water flows and protect marine biodiversity ultimately have a positive impact on human health. The urgency to act is further supported by the recent discovery of microplastics in rainwater.  

“As the saying goes: water is life, and sanitation is dignity. We are still far behind in meeting these global targets. Especially with integrated water resource management. In Botswana, we are 48% into achieving this goal, when we should be at 100% by 2030. We are not even among the worst countries in these regards.”

Piet Kenabatho, professor in hydrology at the University of Botswana, member of the ISC Expert Group.

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UN 2023 Water Conference: ISC Policy Brief

This policy brief of the International Science Council (ISC) for the UN 2023 Water Conference highlights the importance of science and the importance of actionable knowledge in responding to current global water crises as well as emerging and future challenges.

 SDG 6 promotes international cooperation through capacity building, insisting on the need to strengthen support for local communities and to include them in leading actions to address water crises. But before scientists can champion both research and solutions, they need to be given the opportunity to better operate within the wide range of scientific fields. Anthropologist Heather O’Leary deplores the lack of integration of social sciences research in finding solutions. 

“As anthropologists, we can read infrastructure in a way that an engineer might not, in a way of extending dignity, humanity, and partnership to other people in our world. It is of the utmost importance to promote science, not only in singular disciplines, but in all the ways we are going to win water challenges and opportunities to be more sustainable, to grow in responsible ways. It depends on our capacity to meet with and cooperate with one field and another. If we don’t, we’ll be stuck for another decade or two. The ISC allowed us to work across the world and across disciplines”

Heather O’Leary, Head of the Council of Scientific Commissions and Chair of the Scientific Commission for Anthropology and Environment of the IUAES member of the ISC Expert Group.  

What is holding us back in achieving access to water for all? 

Despite availability of resources and knowledge, action remains insufficient. Professor Piet Kenabatho recommends strengthening the role of science as an objective authority, as well as making it more accessible and understandable for action leaders and the wider public. 

“We cannot do anything without understanding science, which must be delivered in a way policy-makers can understand it. On the forefront we can cite groundwater assessment, artificial recharges as crucial mechanisms that can advance the water agenda, improving water use and security. Let’s give science the space to inform now and future generations.”

Piet Kenabatho 

To prioritize scientific focus to specific areas where successful implementation is likely to yield the largest benefits for people on the ground, cooperation and transboundary governance are key. Professor Kenabatho underlines the examples of Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia as leaders in advancing cooperation processes in Southern Africa through a transboundary groundwater aquifer corridor between the three countries. 

Moreover, identical challenges require differentiated solutions, such as water scarcity, which often has an “economic” cause rather than a “physical” one, as mentioned above. The slow process in improving water-use efficiency, especially in agriculture and industry, are holding us back. To find relevant solutions, it’s crucial to shift the focus to human and local territories, because each solution needs to be adapted to a local context.  

“About the SDGs and the progress we can make, we need to think about our intellectual human capital, which is all around us. There are absolutely brilliant ideas toward understanding small and medium scale issues of water that everyday people are working out among themselves. If this can be scaled up and if we can consider what everyday people do as a facet of science, we would have a more responsible way of partnering with the public. We should give those solutions credibility, legitimacy, and the support they need to be able to transform all of our water lives. Answers don’t lie out there is some distant future, but the biggest transformations of tomorrow will happen when we listen to people today”.   

Heather O’Leary

Drawing on the expertise of its broad-based membership in the natural and social sciences, as well as technology, the ISC aims to provide integrated, independent, and evidence-based scientific advice to decision-makers at the UN Water Conference. The ISC Water Policy Brief calls for scientific and political coordination and presents recommendations to policy- and decision-makers and other stakeholders at UN- and Member States-level to translate scientific insights into tangible improvements. 

Photo from NASA – Unsplash

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