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Linking Water Security to Nature – a technological perspective

On the occasion of World Water Day 2021, the IAHR Global Water Security Working Group organized a webinar on the fundamental issues of global water security, focusing on the question how to link water security to nature. Three presenters showed, from the more abstract, philosophical level to the very practical level, that working with nature rather than against it is the way forward, not to ensure, but to at least promote water security for humans and nature. This is a summary of their very interesting talks, with some afterthoughts from a technological perspective.

With the expected demand for water in 2030 surpassing its availability by a staggering 40%, water security is one of the vital issues of our age. On March 22nd, Global Water Day, the IAHR Global Water Security Working Group organized its third webinar on the fundamental issues of global water security, focusing on the question how to link water security to nature.

After a brief introduction, the first presentation was given by prof. Jörg Imberger (University College London). Starting from the early history of mankind, he argued that, even though premodern humans may also have had a significant impact on their environment, it is the technological advancement that basically allows us to remove our senses, thinking and storage of information away from reality (nature), breaking a direct link. Human brains combined with modern technology are better at filing, but less curious and less capable of visionary problem solving. The consequences of this, as is well known, are global warming, forest clearing, contamination of freshwater and oceans. Prof. Imberger continued to compare the tribes of early mankind to modern day global tribes in the form of multinational companies, that use marketing specialists rather than warriors. In tribal times, a leader providing his people what they needed (i.e. food and safety) could do so without overtaxing their environment. This is obviously no longer the case for these modern day tribes. He finished by discussing how to get communities to do “the right thing”, suggesting that we give a free education to every person on what natures does for us and to give everybody access to a virtual reality serious game in which the impact of their life style can be made clear to them.

The second presentation, by prof. Jay Lund (University of California – Davis), focused on the question whether humans and nature can both be water secure with a changing climate. Water security for humans, he argued, leaves room for improvement. It is good in several places, and often a strong function of prosperity and social justice. But nevertheless, it has basically never been as good in the history of mankind as it is today, and prospects are good as well. Historically, water security for nature has generally been good. And even though even small scattered populations of humans managed to have a strong impact on nature on a local or even regional scale (e.g. trough burning of woodlands), nature did fine. However, now it is under great (even existential) threat. We can expect that, if we work sufficiently hard on this, nature water security will improve eventually. But, he argued, a lot will have been lost in the meantime. We are already seeing the signs of change to come, prof. Lund showed. For example, global land use by agriculture will probably peak soon or may have already done so in recent years. And in developed countries, we appear to have passed “peak water” use per capita. Point sources of water contamination have been addressed to a large degree (but not more diffuse sources). There are reasons to be pessimistic and reasons to be optimistic, not the least because pessimism will probably be self-fulfilling (and therefore, optimism may also be). We need to establish “ecosystem reconciliation” for nature and humans. We need to ask ourselves what kind of nature we want, and how we reconcile human land use with that kind of nature/ An important aspect of that may be in nature-based solutions. Prof. Lund concluded by proposing that we consider reconciled ecosystems our new cathedrals, taking centuries to build, working towards a common goal.

The nature based solutions alluded to in the second presentation were central in the third, which was given by Dr. Ellis Penning (Deltares). The main risks in water security are in its quantity (too little or too much) and in its quality. There is an increasing call for nature based solutions, which have been defined as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits” (Cohen-Shacham et al., 2019). These included so-called blue-green infrastructures that contribute to flood defense, flood and drought mitigation and adaptation, environmental pollution and (urban) heat stress and climate adaptation. At the core of nature-based solutions is a deep understanding of how a system works. Dr. Ellis showed several examples of practical applications. She finished by discussing six enablers for nature-based solutions, which can be summarized as follows:

  1. full technology and system understanding;
  2. multi-stakeholder involvement from the earliest stages;
  3. adaptive monitoring, management and maintenance as part of the design;
  4. institutional embedding;
  5. consider life cycle costs and (multiple) benefits;
  6. communicate (educate, discuss, listen, …).

Or to summarize the summary: engineers, ecologists, financiers, inhabitants should talk to each other.

These were three inspiring talks, very complementary to each other. Together they showed, from the more abstract, philosophical level to the very practical level, that working with nature rather than against it is the way forward, not to ensure, but to at least promote water security for humans and nature. The short-termist causes (i.e. externalisation and over-exploitation) of the water challenges we are facing must be replaced by a long-term (cathedral) way of thinking. The complexity of the systems we are dealing with requires us to use technology (data, computer simulations, visualizations), in order to understand how the systems function and how our actions impact on them. But now this technology should also be used to bridge the gap between ourselves and nature. To make everybody appreciate the consequences of choices we make that either directly or indirectly affect the water system. To involve all stakeholders and experts in all relevant fields. That is what technology can help us with like nothing else.