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Water Security, Risk and Society: Oxford Conference Notes

Safety first. (Photo by Peripitus, GNU license)

Last month, I attended the University of Oxford’s first International Water Security Conference. The breadth of presentations, held over three days, made it a challenge to distill a single set of conclusions from the conference. Politicians, scholars, engineers, epidemiologists, climatologists, corporations, NGOs, economists, and lawyers came from six continents to discuss water security, management and conflict from local to global scales.  But everyone seemed to agree to some extent with Peter Gleick’s statement that we “must meet basic human needs . . . and basic ecosystem needs.” As Carl Sagan once put it, “We need the plants much more than they need us.” With this in mind, it seemed that at least four key messages emerged from the conference sessions.

“Stationarity is dead.”

In other words, we can’t assume that the future will look like the past. This idea has been around for a while in water circles, but it was striking to see how much acceptance this concept has gained. Declan Conway clearly articulated the idea in his discussion of the challenges to securing water in climate change. Jim Hall did the same in his talk on difficulties of assessing water risk. The concept was not limited to discussions of climate change, though. Christina Leb’s presentation on international water law, for example, discussed the conflicting need for legal certainty and the simultaneous need for laws which are flexible enough to use in quickly changing and highly variable environments. The discussions were not exclusively about uncertainty though, Thorston Wagener presented some solutions to deal with the difficulties of non-stationarity in hydrological modelling by changing the way that we assess the credibility of projections.

We’re living in the “time of consequences.”

Letitia Obeng of the Global Water Partnership stated at the opening session of the conference that we are now living  in the “time of consequences.” This sentiment is closely related to non-stationarity. The underlying idea is that the negative impacts of human action and inaction from recent years were delayed to an extent, and we are starting to feel them now. The combined effects of population growth, climate change, and economic policies are all putting pressure on water issues and making it more difficult to meet basic human needs. It isn’t just NGOs that expressed concern about this. Representatives from national governments and corporations also discussed their concern. As Greg Koch of the Coca-Cola company noted, however, this might not be based on altruism.

“Water isn’t just a [ ___] issue.”

The third common theme is that water issues are not confined to any one group, location, sector, or scale. This was reflected in the diversity of delegates and within their presentations. For example, in one session, Carles Ibanez of the Institut de Recerca i Tecnologia Agroalimentaries, suggested that “in global terms the most likely scenario is one with energy security impacting on water security–rather than the other way around.” Delegates described water as–inter alia–an economic issue, human rights issue, and environmental issue. Whenever a speaker appeared to be favoring one of these issue at the expense of others, participants were quick to point out which issues they thought were missing–most frequently sanitation, climate change, and agriculture.

Data! We need more of it and need to share it.

The message that sharing data can assist with negotiations, enable smarter water management, and ultimately help to meet the goal of fulfilling basic human needs for water was stressed throughout the conference. David Grey, formerly of the World Bank, also made the case early on in the conference for the role of sharing data in aiding cooperation between countries. Speakers and participants also frequently repeated that many of the most climate-vulnerable populations are also some of those for which we have the least data. Better data is needed to make more sound hydrological models and responsible policies.


The problems of meeting basic human needs (and ecosystem needs) for water have never been simple. Now, however, with quickly changing conditions and growing awareness of the uncertainties in future scenarios, water security problems appear to have become even more complex. Solutions will need to be interdisciplinary and cooperative. Along with this, of course, will come a need to improve the quality and availability of our data.

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