If my academic and professional experience has taught me anything, it is that Noam Chomsky got it right when he said, “We have two choices. We can be pessimistic, give up, and help ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist, and maybe help make the world a better place. Not much of a choice.”1 This is an idea I see in action almost daily.

As an intern in the IWA Basins of the Future programme, I am working on the SPACE-O project, which is exploring cutting edge solutions to some of the most pressing global water challenges, I work with inspiring and committed individuals that believe we can create a world where water is wisely and sustainably managed for the human and natural world, alike.

The past three years I spent studying and researching in the field of sustainability and environmental sciences at Lund University have only served to reinforce Chomsky’s message. My colleagues at the university were deeply committed to the pursuit of a sustainable world, and inspired the same belief in others. There we debated solutions to address climate change and related issues of water, energy, behavioural change and post-growth, but most importantly how to step outside of our bubbles and silos and speak with others who are less engaged. I recognize this same commitment at the IWA in their effort to inspire action, knowledge sharing and connect experts, technology developers, practitioners, governments, utilities, civil society, all working towards urban and basin-related water solutions. This is a monumental task! So much effort is put into developing strategies to bring these different stakeholders together and create shared spaces where boundaries between disciplines and working areas are dissolved. One great example of this is the IWA Water & Development Congress & Exhibition, where you will see government representatives rubbing shoulders with practitioners, discussing topics such as political and social engagement in water issues.

“We have two choices. We can be pessimistic, give up, and help ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist, and maybe help make the world a better place. Not much of a choice”

After only a few short weeks at the IWA Operational Headquarters in The Hague, I returned to Lund for the LUMES alumni conference with fellow peers working within the field of sustainability. Keynote speeches by alumni from the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Stockholm Resilience Centre asked us to think big about solutions, but we were also reminded of the scale of the challenges ahead. To paraphrase Chomsky, we were being asked to be optimists, to seize the opportunities, but to understand why pessimism continues.

During the conference, I chaired a session on development issues facing Africa. A colleague presented on community water and sanitation development in rural Tanzania, and I discussed community water and sanitation governance and community-led development in peri-urban Ghana. Another colleague presented on energy injustice in the Democratic Republic of Congo based on the case of the Grand Inga dam project. This session on WATSAN & energy development in the sub-Saharan region really helped to shed light on the very real impact of water and energy policies on communities and the multitude of stakeholders involved in funding and decision-making in the water and energy sector. There is an undeniable disconnect and injustice occurring in water basins, where water (in quantity and quality) and energy services are disproportionately accessible and those living beyond the boundaries of cities are negatively impacted by decisions made to fuel urban water and energy needs. I am lucky enough be working on the Basin Action Agenda, which, in part, is attempting to provide guidance pathways for urban stakeholders, including utilities, cities and their industries, to work with basin level organisations and other relevant stakeholders to ensure planning and management of water resources occurs starting at the catchment level down to major urban water consumers.

Presenting on my research on community water and sanitation development and community-led development in peri-urban Ghana. Photo courtesy of LUMES, 2017.

In our discussions on water and energy development, we also reflected on gender, inequality within communities and injustices in development that remain substantial roadblocks across the African continent. Overcoming these roadblocks will require long-term, cross-sectoral commitment by all actors, including  citizens, beyond the limited timeframes of project funding cycles and short-sighted political agendas. It’s not difficult to see that water issues are closely linked to social issues and thus, very complex. With so many actors working on issues related to water, it’s important to see how all efforts fit together. I see this reflected in the IWA’s work on developing action-oriented, transformational change agendas, such as the Basin Action Agenda. The promise of such agendas for change lies in how inclusive they are of knowledge and viewpoints and how informative they are at demonstrating how agenda priorities can lead to sustainable change on the ground.

Progress towards the achievement of a more sustainable world will result from a greater understanding of the global interconnectedness of water, energy, food, livelihoods, unequal societies, global economic drivers and many other areas that too often sit in silos. This interconnectedness requires all of us to become specialists in our fields, but also generalists when we zoom out to the bigger picture. If we look at trends within sustainability research, interdisciplinary research is on the rise2; calls for collaborative and transdisciplinary research and capacity mobilisation are being made3, and research on the interconnectedness of the SDGs4 is underway. Inspiration for achieving the SDGs and concrete examples of successful cases are important to make SDG implementation more tangible and replicable, like what the IWA’s SDG taskforce is doing to share successful cases of water wise wastewater treatment reuse and recycling in the SDG Spotlight stories.

My work within the SPACE-O research consortium for the IWA is striving to advance the use and availability of satellite Earth Observation data to develop a decision-making support tool and risk assessment tool for water utility managers. Interdisciplinarity is critical – Earth Observation & remote sensing specialists must work with environmental monitoring and modelling specialists; computer programming specialists must work with basin water management specialists and water utility professionals. The project comes in response to European water policies5,6, but has benefits to other policy areas concerning energy7, space innovation8 and citizen science9. Unimaginable leaps in satellite-derived innovation are occurring, with open source satellite data paving the way towards discovering innovative ways to put data from space to work on tackling sustainability challenges. At the end of the day, technology, just like water, is closely connected to social issues. A keen awareness of unintended consequences is absolutely necessary to ensure that strives towards securing freshwater health and quantity in catchments occurs alongside positive socioeconomic developments.    

It is easy to become consumed by the areas in which we work. I like to remind myself that satellite technology-derived water management tools are one lever of change, underpinned by a myriad of other levers – including progressive governance and regulatory shifts, leadership, behavioural change in water use, circular water systems and integrated urban planning. Here at the IWA, I’ve committed myself to becoming more reflective on how my work fits within the wider thematic areas in which we work and how we can build stronger links and strengthen collaboration within our organisation and beyond. It’s a tall order, striving to make transformational change, but what other choice do we have?

This blog was written by Shona Jenkins, IWA, Basins of the Future programmes.

If you are interested in joining the discussion on the use of Earth Observation for Improved Water Management, visit our discussion group dedicated to the topic at the International Water Association’s IWA Connect. If you are not yet a member of IWA Connect, you can easily join as a network member for free here. Once you are logged-in, you can access the discussion group here.